Tuesday, June 29, 2004

U.S. intelligence agencies are warning the federal government to be on alert for a terrorist attack around the July Fourth holiday, especially at military facilities and large gatherings, according to U.S. officials.

Officials familiar with an internal report outlining the concern said it indicates that an attack might take place from a high vantage point, although there was no further explanation.

One method of attack could be a car or truck filled with explosives, the officials said.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson yesterday said there was no intelligence that warranted an increase in the color-coded terror-alert warning system from its current level of “yellow,” designating an “elevated” risk of attack.

U.S. officials have said since April that they were worried the Islamist militant group al Qaeda might take advantage of holidays or gatherings of political leaders over the summer to attack the United States or U.S. interests.

One official said last week’s report provided only a general warning of an attack and contained no specifics of where or when terrorists might strike.

The FBI is expected to mention the July Fourth terrorist threat in a bulletin to law-enforcement agencies this week.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said he has not seen “anything specific or credible at this time” relating to the July Fourth weekend.

“The potential [for an attack] is certainly there,” Mr. Carter said. “Whenever you have large gatherings of people for a celebration, a terrorist group could use that as a platform to commit an attack.”

Other recent intelligence reports indicate that al Qaeda terrorists continue to seek commercial-pilot training, an indication that the group has not given up plans to use hijacked airliners as missiles, the official said.

There also is a concern that al Qaeda terrorists have infiltrated the United States in the past several months, including one key al Qaeda leader who is being sought quietly by U.S. intelligence and security officials.

Seven suspected al Qaeda terrorists were identified last month as posing what Attorney General John Ashcroft said was “a clear and present danger” to the United States.

One official said al Qaeda generally plans attacks “on its own timetable and not necessarily on a date significant to us.”

Mr. Ashcroft said in a press conference on May 26 that al Qaeda is planning an attack in the United States in “the next few months.”

He noted that the intelligence “indicates al Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard.”

The terrorist group has said, “It’s almost ready to attack the United States,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said July Fourth, along with the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions “are seen by terrorists as possible opportunities for attack.”

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