Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The United States has credible intelligence from multiple sources that al Qaeda is determined to launch an attack in the United States in the coming months that could be linked to events such as an upcoming international economic summit and the summer political conventions, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today.

Mr.Ashcroft said the intelligence, coupled with recent public statements attributed to al Qaeda, “suggest that it is almost ready to attack the United States.” The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq due to the political repercussions of the March 11 train bombings in Spain, Mr. Ashcroft added, could lead al Qaeda to attempt to influence U.S. politics.

“Al Qaeda may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall could lead to similar consequences,” Ashcroft said in remarks prepared for a news conference.

The intelligence does not contain specifics such as timing, method or place of an attack. But officials say it is highly credible and backed with greater corroboration than usual, including information that operatives may already be in the United States.

Ashcroft, appearing with FBI Director Robert Mueller, drew new attention to photos of seven suspected al Qaeda operatives that the FBI has been pursuing for months. They include Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native who once lived in Florida, and Aafia Siddiqui, a woman from Pakistan who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. Ashcroft also said that recent intelligence indicates that al Qaeda operatives now may be traveling with their families to attract less suspicion and that the terror network has been seeking recruits “who can portray themselves as European.”

To focus on the threat, the FBI has established a 2004 Threat Task Force and FBI analysts are reviewing previously collected intelligence to see if it contains any clues to the latest threat. There will also be a series of interviews conducted by the FBI with individuals who could have information about potential plots.

Some law enforcement and firefighter union representatives, supporters of Democrat John Kerry for president, suggested that the timing of the threat report was suspicious because of polls showing a sagging approval rating for President Bush. International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger told reporters in a conference call that the intelligence has been in the government’s hands for weeks.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, however, denied that there is a political aspect to the threat report.

“The president believes it’s very important to share information appropriately,” Mr. McClellan said. “We do that in a number of ways when it comes to looking at the threats we face here in the homeland.”

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, interviewed on NBC’s “Today” show, said there are no current plans to lift the national alert status from yellow, where it has stood since January. That’s the midlevel alert level on a five-step warning program.

“First of all, every day we take a look at the overall threat reporting that we receive,” Mr. Ridge said. “There’s not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level. … We do not need to raise the threat level to increase security. Right now, there’s no need to put the entire country on a (elevated) national alert.”

Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the agency will remind travelers to be on the alert for suspicious behavior or unattended packages.

Beginning with Saturday’s dedication of the new World War II Memorial in Washington, the summer presents a number of high-profile targets in the United States. They include the G-8 summit in Georgia next month that will attract top officials from some of America’s closest allies, plus the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July and the Republican National Convention in August in New York City.

The FBI and Homeland Security Department also are concerned about so-called soft targets such as shopping malls anywhere in the United States that offer a far less protected environment than a political convention hall.

Of special concern is the possibility that terrorists may possess and use a chemical, biological or radiological weapon that could cause much more damage and casualties than a conventional bomb.

U.S. authorities have said repeatedly that al Qaeda is determined to mount an attack on U.S. soil, in part to announce to the world that it remains capable of doing so despite the money and effort that has gone into homeland security since the Sept. 11 attacks.

There also is concern terrorists might try to mount an attack to coincide with the November election. The political fallout from the March 11 train bombings in Spain taught al Qaeda that an attack timed to an election can have a major impact. Spain’s former ruling party was ousted in the voting that followed the bombing, which killed 191 and injured more than 2,000.

Special security attention already is being focused to the nation’s rail, subway and bus lines.

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