Wednesday, August 11, 2004

U.S. intelligence officials say a high-profile political assassination, triggered by the public release of a new message from Osama bin Laden, will lead off the next major al Qaeda terrorist attack, The Washington Times has learned.

The assassination plan is among new details of al Qaeda plots disclosed by U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports who, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the killing could be carried out against a U.S. or foreign leader either in the United States or abroad.

The officials mentioned Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two nations that are working with the United States in the battle against al Qaeda, as likely locales for the opening assassination.

The planning for the attacks to follow involves “multiple targets in multiple venues” across the United States, one official said.

The new details of al Qaeda’s plans were found on a laptop computer belonging to arrested al Qaeda operative Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan of Pakistan.

“We’re talking about planning at the screwdriver level,” one official said. “It is very detailed.”

Khan was arrested July 13 in Lahore, Pakistan, along with Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian who was indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and was on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists.

U.S. and allied counterterrorism officials are pursuing leads on other terrorists based on the data from Khan’s seized laptop. At least one arrest in Britain has been made so far, and others are expected, the officials said.

Additionally, U.S. intelligence officials said they think that several al Qaeda terrorists already in the United States are part of the plot, although their identities and locations are not known.

The targets, in addition to the financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., that have been the subject of public warnings, include such economic-related targets as oil and gas facilities with a view toward disrupting the November election.

“The goal of the next attack is twofold: to damage the U.S. economy and to undermine the U.S. election,” the official said. “The view of al Qaeda is ‘anybody but Bush.’”

The officials also said the terrorist group has begun using female members for preattack surveillance and possibly as suicide bombers, thinking that women will have an easier time getting past security checkpoints at airports, borders and ports.

The al Qaeda attack plans call for bombings using trucks and cars, and hijacked aircraft, including commercial airliners and helicopters.

“There is a particular concern that chemical trucks will be used,” one official said.

Regarding the new bin Laden message, the officials said there are intelligence reports, some of them sketchy, that a new tape from the al Qaeda leader will surface soon.

In the past, video and audio messages by bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, were broadcast days or weeks before an attack, the officials said.

“The message likely will be the signal for the attack to be launched,” one official said.

A second U.S. official said one intelligence agency was aware of unconfirmed reports of a new bin Laden tape.

“There may be such a tape, but it hasn’t surfaced and we haven’t seen it,” this official said.

Bin Laden last released a taped message in April. The CIA said that the audiotape probably was the voice of bin Laden and that the mention of the March 11 Madrid train bombings shows that the tape was current.

That tape offered a “truce” for any European state that pledged to stop attacking Muslims and end cooperation with the United States.

Contrary to what some Democratic critics of the Bush administration have said, intelligence officials said the new details of al Qaeda planning were obtained from the Khan laptop. The terrorist group was in the process of updating older attack plans, the officials said.

On Aug. 2, the Bush administration raised the terrorism threat level from “elevated” to “high” for five finance-related sites in the District, New York and New Jersey, based on the intelligence in Khan’s computer, as well as other intelligence.

Frances Townsend, a White House homeland-security adviser, said Sunday that the government has received a steady “stream” of intelligence indicating that an al Qaeda attack is planned.

“What we know now that we didn’t know six months ago is that they’ve done a good deal of planning and surveillance work to accomplish that goal,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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