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The Nation | ACTION IN CONGRESS

FBI Warns of Possible 'Spectacular' Attack

No specifics are given, but Al Qaeda network may be looking to cause mass casualties.

November 15, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda may be planning a "spectacular" terrorist attack intended to damage the U.S. economy and inflict large-scale casualties, the FBI warns in a law enforcement bulletin circulated Thursday.

The warning went to officials nationwide. It contains no information about the timing, location or method of a possible attack. Even so, the warning is unusual because of its dire language.

"Sources suggest Al Qaeda may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma," says the alert, which was posted on the FBI's Web site early today.

The warning came as the Senate's top Democrat said Thursday that the failure of U.S. authorities to capture Osama bin Laden raises questions about "whether or not we are winning the war on terror."

"We can't find Bin Laden; we haven't made real progress" in finding key elements of the Al Qaeda network, said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "They continue to be as great a threat today as they were 1 1/2 years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?"

The FBI warning said the highest priority targets remain within the aviation, petroleum and nuclear sectors, as well as significant national landmarks.

Federal authorities previously have issued warnings for those specific industries and national landmarks in general. But there is clearly worry that the danger of an attack is growing because of increased "chatter" picked up through intelligence channels, the continuing U.S. showdown with Iraq and the recently revealed audiotaped warnings believed to be from Bin Laden.

Still, the latest warning has not led the Bush administration to raise the terrorist threat level above code yellow, or "elevated," which is the middle of a five-level scale of risk developed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that although the terrorism risk level remains unchanged, "We are taking additional precautions to meet the threat."

These include unspecified "additional steps to ramp up our protection and prevention measures" within federal agencies, McClellan said.

The FBI and other agencies also are communicating possible threats and assessments of risk to state and local law enforcement agencies and specific industries that could be targeted for attack.

In recent weeks, the FBI has issued warnings about possible attacks on U.S. railroads and on the energy industry, as well as a more general warning about heightened risk during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started Wednesday and ends Dec. 5.

"We're especially sensitive to timeframes which might be thought by the enemy to be a time when they might want to make a statement," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said.

On Wednesday, the FBI told authorities in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington to be aware of threats against hospitals. Even though that threat was assigned low credibility by senior law enforcement officials, the FBI is preferring to err on the side of caution in terms of giving out information, officials said.

The idea is to increase vigilance among local police and people working in industries that are potential targets.

In his meeting with reporters, Daschle said authorities should do a better job of finding where Bin Laden's message came from.

"It seems he has the ability to move at will," Daschle said. "It's been a long time; 9/11 was more than year ago, and we have yet to find him."

A technical analysis of the tape was underway Thursday, and officials said they still think it was Bin Laden's voice but have not confirmed that.

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