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The World

Al Qaeda Might Strike U.S. Targets Overseas

September 08, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nears, there is growing concern among U.S. officials and their allies in Europe, Asia and Africa that Al Qaeda terrorist cells have regrouped and are planning large-scale actions against U.S. targets overseas, authorities said Saturday.

Those fears have been intensifying for months, based on what some U.S. officials described as a steady increase in intelligence "chatter" about pending Al Qaeda activity, particularly in Europe, and a spate of recent arrests.

And though German authorities say they thwarted a possible Sept. 11 attack on a huge U.S. military base in Heidelberg, U.S. officials caution that there are indications that other U.S. military installations, U.S. embassies and even tourist sights frequented by Americans are now being targeted by organized and well-financed terrorist cells.

"We've been picking up chatter all summer," said one Justice Department official.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence authorities and their counterparts overseas have received no specific information as to the time or place of any attacks, the Justice Department official said. But the concerns about impending terrorist activity--perhaps pegged to Sept. 11, perhaps not--have come from a variety of trusted sources, the official said.

"There is a lot of very nonspecific information but from what we consider to be credible sources, as opposed to more specific information from sources that we would not consider credible," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It comes from certain people [being monitored or interrogated] and from certain intelligence-gathering agencies outside of our own."

On Sept. 11, the Justice Department's top counter-terrorism official, Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff, will be in London for strategy meetings with his counterparts, the official said. And although those meetings were planned long ago, the official said, the recent indications of Al Qaeda activity have given Chertoff's trip an increased sense of urgency.

In an interview, a senior State Department official who also requested anonymity confirmed that U.S. authorities are acutely concerned about the possibility of imminent attacks against embassies and other U.S. facilities worldwide.

Security at those installations has been enhanced, the State Department official said, but authorities fear that it might be insufficient to withstand an attack on the scale of the two truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

In April, suspected Al Qaeda operatives tried something new: detonating a bomb outside a Tunisian synagogue in a truck filled with gasoline for added explosive power. Twenty-one people, many of them German tourists, were killed.

U.S. embassies and other American facilities overseas are considered "soft targets," in counter-terrorism parlance, because of the near impossibility of protecting them all. They have been a source of significant concern for years within the Clinton and Bush administrations--increasingly so after the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed 224 people and injured thousands more.

Since those attacks, more than a dozen plots to attack U.S. embassies, military installations and other places where Americans congregate have been thwarted on several continents.

But as the symbolic date of Sept. 11 draws near, U.S. officials and their allies have sensed intensifying activity by some of the thousands of Al Qaeda soldiers believed to be on every continent where the United States maintains a diplomatic and military presence. They are able to remain undetected, authorities say, because Al Qaeda has maintained a well-entrenched network of followers who appear to be providing fake documents, financing and havens for those plotting attacks.

In addition to those belonging to organized Al Qaeda cells, authorities say, there are thousands of additional supporters of Al Qaeda's jihad, or holy war, against the West. U.S. officials say these individuals also might launch attacks.

"Prior to 9/11, we were extremely concerned about U.S. facilities in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe as well as on the Arabian Peninsula," said one Bush administration official familiar with the long-term counter-terrorism campaign. "They are going after all the same targets they did before."

Last week, German police arrested a woman with U.S. and German passports and her Turkish fiance on suspicion of plotting an attack on the U.S. Army's European headquarters. The authorities do not believe that the two were affiliated with any terrorist group. But according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, Astrid Eyzaguirre, who was employed at a store on the Heidelberg military base, warned a friend to stay away from the store in the days leading up to Sept. 11.

In Stockholm, authorities arrested a Swede of Tunisian origin on Aug. 29 on suspicion of planning to hijack and sabotage a British-bound aircraft.

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