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FBI Warns Banks of Terrorist Threat

Security: The alert to Northeast institutions is based on information from an Al Qaeda leader held by the U.S., who may have reason to lie.


WASHINGTON — The FBI, acting on information from a captured senior aide to Osama bin Laden, warned banks and financial institutions throughout the Northeast on Friday that they face the threat of terrorist attacks.

Abu Zubeida, a senior Al Qaeda commander who was captured in Pakistan last month, indicated to military officials in interviews in recent days that Bin Laden's terrorist network is "very interested in [hitting] the financial sector" in the United States, according to a government official who asked not to be identified.

This is the first indication that the Saudi-born Zubeida, after three weeks in detention, is actively cooperating with his captors, which would mark a dramatic breakthrough in efforts by the United States to penetrate and break the Al Qaeda network.

But Zubeida could be trying to spread disinformation to keep the United States off the scent of real terrorist plots, authorities acknowledged. They cautioned that the threat to Northeastern banks is "unsubstantiated" and that it did not warrant raising the nationwide threat level. The current "yellow" warning level, third in the government's new five-tier system, means there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks.

Nonetheless, the threat has triggered deep concerns within the Bush administration about the prospect of a fresh round of attacks, seven months after the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Top administration officials--including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, CIA Director George J. Tenet and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge--met at the White House Friday morning to discuss the threat to the financial industry before deciding to have the FBI issue its midafternoon alert, sources said.

"This was discussed at the highest levels, and it's being taken very seriously, no doubt," a law enforcement official said.

The FBI warned that the government had "received unsubstantiated information that unspecified terrorists are considering physical attacks against U.S. financial institutions in the Northeast, particularly banks, as part of their campaign against U.S. financial interests."

Although the FBI "has no specific information about any specific plot or threats to any specific institution," the warning said, "out of an abundance of caution an alert has been transmitted to law enforcement and to financial institutions in the Northeastern states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia."

Authorities are trying to corroborate Zubeida's information through independent means, and some in the intelligence community are skeptical about its veracity because Al Qaeda members are notorious for using disinformation as a weapon to hide their intentions.

"Just because he's uttering words doesn't make it true. He might be telling us what he thinks we want to hear, and all of that has to be considered," said a government official who also asked not to be identified.

Echoing that skepticism, a White House official said: "We have to be very concerned that he [could be] putting out disinformation. It would only be a logical step for this guy. For someone like him to turn state's evidence and tell all, it would be rather surprising.

"This is not Ahmed Ressam [a fairly low-level Al Qaeda operative convicted in a planned millennium bombing at Los Angeles International Airport], or some other soldier who decides to talk. He is one of the top figures in the entire Al Qaeda organization."

The FBI has issued more than a dozen terrorist-related alerts since September, warning about potential threats during specific time periods or involving certain industries, such as hazardous material haulers or crop-dusters.

Some frustrated local police officials and politicians have criticized the federal warnings, saying they serve only to alarm people. But Ashcroft, defending the policy during an appearance Friday in Pittsburgh, said alerting the public to "threat information that merits their attention," even if uncorroborated, can serve to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks.

"We are not asking the banks to close, nor urging people to stay away from banks. We are alerting law enforcement, financial institutions and the American people to be vigilant and to be aware of anything that appears suspicious," Ashcroft said.

U.S. stock prices dipped briefly after word of the FBI warning but soon recovered, and many financiers appeared to take the news in stride in the post-Sept. 11 climate of ever-present caution.

There were no immediate reports of bank closures, unlike the chaos in Washington on Monday when a bomb threat prompted most of the city's several hundred banks to shut their doors on tax deadline day. Authorities later determined that the anonymous threat--reporting that a bomb would be detonated at noon at a bank--had been phoned in by a 13-year-old boy in the Netherlands. The boy confessed to the hoax.

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