Thursday, May 22, 2003

The U.S. military deployed air-defense missiles and fighter jets in Washington for an exercise amid heightened threats of terrorism, as al Qaeda’s No. 2 official purportedly issued a message yesterday urging Muslims to kill Americans and Israelis and warning of attacks.

The Defense Intelligence Agency notified U.S. military commanders Tuesday night that the threat of terrorist attacks against military facilities in the United States has increased, and that the likelihood of an attack is high.

Security has been stepped up at U.S. military facilities nationwide, defense officials said.

U.S. intelligence is analyzing a new audiotape to determine whether it carries a covert message from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri, a key aide to terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said.

The message may be a signal for clandestine cells to begin attacks, said officials with knowledge of the tape analysis who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“God willing, the coming days will bring you heartening news,” said the recorded message, purported to have been delivered in Arabic by al Zawahri to Muslims worldwide.

“Consider your 19 brothers who attacked America in Washington and New York with their planes as an example,” the message said.

In a related development, the Arabic-language magazine Al-Majallah reported in London on Sunday that it had received an e-mail from an al Qaeda official who warned of attacks against the U.S. Army.

Abu-Muhammad al-Ablaj, the al Qaeda official, stated that weapons and explosives are in place to attack Arab states in the Persian Gulf and to strike the United States “in its own backyard.”

“These preparations of ours are for strikes at the United States and other targets, and implementation of this has become very imminent,” he said. “The crusader army’s rear must be hit.”

Female suicide bombers are ready, al-Ablaj said, and commanders are in place for attacks on the scale of those that occurred September 11, the magazine reported, quoting the e-mail.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was set to conduct an air-defense exercise over Washington last night involving low-flying fighter jets on simulated aircraft-intercept missions.

U.S. Air Force F-16 jets were to conduct flights along the Potomac River near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The exercise, known as Falcon Virgo, also involves the deployment of Avenger and Stinger air-defense missiles at several locations in the area.

The missiles will be deployed throughout the period of heightened terrorist threats, defense officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters on Capitol Hill that he would not discuss increased security measures for military facilities for fear of tipping off the terrorists.

“What we do is we go about our business and try to provide for the protection of the national capital region and for our forces around the world in a way that we believe is appropriate, and in a way that we think will deter and defend the forces in our country,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Intelligence information on the al Qaeda plans comes from “multiple sources,” electronic as well as human, U.S. officials said.

“It could signal future attacks,” one official said on the condition of anonymity. “There have been recordings in the past followed by attacks. This is something we’re taking seriously.”

The audiotape message also could be part of an effort by senior al Qaeda leaders to recapture control of the network from younger extremists.

Some group members are said to be upset that leaders, including bin Laden and al Zawahri, have been ineffective after being forced into hiding owing to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, American officials said.

The Bush administration ordered the national security alert level raised Monday from yellow, an elevated threat of terrorist attack, to orange, a high threat, based on the new intelligence information.

The al Zawahri audiotape message was broadcast on Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite television and stated that the United States plans to “partition” other Arab states after Washington’s victory in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell criticized the Arabic station for airing the tape, noting that it heightens tensions throughout the region by “allowing terrorists to have this kind of access to the airwaves.”

Mr. Powell told reporters that he spoke to Qatar’s foreign minister about the issue, adding, “I think they are taking some action.”

“Do we know if it’s an accurate [tape]? Is it not accurate? Who knows,” Mr. Powell said. “But in any event, it’s heightening tension throughout the world, and it spreads more hatred throughout the world, and I wish they had made a different editorial judgment about it.”

If verified, this would be the third time al Zawahri had issued a statement since the September 11 attacks.

He appeared with bin Laden on an Al Jazeera video broadcast in April last year and praised the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks.

In October, al Zawahri warned of more attacks against Americans in an audiotape message obtained by the Associated Press.

It was the first time the Egyptian was confirmed to be alive since U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, his base of operations, that began October 2001.

That message was followed by a deadly terrorist bombing in Bali, Indonesia, on nightclubs frequented by foreign tourists, as well as attacks in Kuwait and Yemen that U.S. officials said were the work of al Qaeda.

The latest tape criticizes “Muslim rulers” for allowing U.S. warplanes, warships, troops and other ground forces to be based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and for permitting the use of Egypt’s Suez Canal for transit.

“As for Yemen, crusader ships are refueling from its ports, and crusader forces have deployed in Jordan, where batteries of Patriot missiles have also been set up, to protect Israel,” the message states.

“Here are the Muslim rulers [opening up their] airports, bases and facilities, allowing [U.S.] ships to sail in their waters and providing them with fuel, food and supplies, allowing [U.S.] warplanes to fly in their airspace and take off from their airfields, and serving as a springboard for [the coalitions] huge armies to attack Iraq,” the message said.

The statement said that protests, demonstrations and conferences are useless and that the only course was to “carry weapons and attack your enemies, Americans and Jews.”

The message ends by calling on Muslims to “hit the embassies of America, England, Australia and Norway, their interests, their companies and their employees.”

In a message to Iraqis, it said that foreigners have faced defeat in the country many times and can be expelled with the help of “mujahideen” — holy warriors “lying in wait for your enemies.”

Terrorists are fighting in Israel, Afghanistan, Chechnya and “in the heart of America and the West,” the message said.

The U.S. Embassy in Oslo, citing the message, announced that it would be closed today for “security reasons.”

A U.S. official said Norway is home to a large Muslim community that could provide a base of operations for al Qaeda cells.

Al-Zawahri, 51, an Egyptian physician, is said to be fluent in Arabic and French.

Listed among the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, he was indicted on suspicion of a role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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