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The Nation

Officials Take Recent Attack Threats Seriously

Warnings, including a new audiotape, prompt stricter safeguards. A Saudi man linked to two 9/11 hijackers agrees to speak with U.S. officials.

August 04, 2003|Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Citing recent terrorist threats, two senior administration officials warned Sunday that Al Qaeda operatives remained active in the United States and could strike at any time.

"I believe that the potential for us to be hit again is a very real potential," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said on "Fox News Sunday."

Members of the terrorism network, he said, "want to strike us whenever and wherever they can."

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said, "I feel every day that we operate toward the notion that there will be [another terrorist attack], and I think we have to. And I don't think that the horizon that we look at should be anything other than accepting reality that we are a target. Everything we stand for is anathema to all these people who would do us harm."

Both officials said they took seriously a new audiotape purportedly from high-ranking Al Qaeda operative Ayman Zawahiri, although the U.S. was still seeking to authenticate the recording.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician, is considered Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant. Al Arabiya television in Dubai broadcast the tape and identified the voice as Zawahiri's.

The man on the recording vowed retribution against the United States if it harmed any of the detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. is holding more than 600 prisoners from 42 nations at the detention center, which was set up for suspected members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"We tell America only one thing: What you have suffered until now is only the initial skirmishes. The real battle has not started yet," the man on the tape said.

Ashcroft and Ridge blanketed five Sunday talk shows at a time when the Bush administration was under fire for intelligence lapses before the Sept. 11 attacks nearly two years ago and for claims the president made before launching the war against Iraq about Saddam Hussein's links to terrorists and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Ashcroft said the administration's most recent steps to increase security were prompted by intelligence focusing on a suspected hijacking plot this summer. He said that rather than raise the nationwide threat level, officials decided instead to suspend two programs that allowed foreigners who would ordinarily need a U.S. visa to transfer between overseas flights at U.S. airports without being screened.

"The nature of the intelligence seemed to be focused," Ashcroft said. "The specificity of the risks appeared to be more redundant, more repetitive in the intelligence community, and more corroborated."

Ridge said that upon picking up the recent hijacking threat, the government took several actions even before shutting down the transit programs.

"Immediately, we shifted some resources for the air marshals.... We began making secondary screening much more intense" at airports, and the agency sent out a directive to airlines and law enforcement agencies, he said.

Ridge said the U.S. would initiate more rigorous screening in the coming months of individuals arriving from abroad.

"We're going to have an entry-exit system based on a machine-readable passport so we'll be able to verify and validate they are who they claim to be. And, down the road, more screening of passengers and their baggage" will be done in foreign ports, he said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Ashcroft also touted the administration's progress, which he said included preventing further strikes by Al Qaeda.

"There are about 3,000 people who have been disrupted very seriously, and we have disrupted, I think, perhaps more than 100 events in the terrorist stream of activities," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"There are probably a lot of reasons for it," Ridge said, adding that he's grateful there has not been another major attack. "And every single day that we work to do more to prevent a terrorist attack and reduce our vulnerability makes it tougher and tougher for them to assault us," he said.

Elsewhere, a Saudi man who the FBI says aided two of the Sept. 11 hijackers told Al Arabiya television Sunday that he was willing to speak with U.S. officials, but only in Saudi Arabia and only in the presence of Saudi government officials.

In late 1999, according to the FBI, Omar al-Bayoumi met the two young Saudis, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, in Los Angeles just after they arrived in the United States and helped them get settled in San Diego.

Shortly after the attacks, Al Bayoumi, then living in England, was detained and questioned at the request of the FBI. He was released and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Ashcroft said on "This Week" that the U.S. might seek additional interviews with Al Bayoumi. "As we develop information, sometimes we'll learn something that we need to go back and ask to someone that we might not have thought important before," the attorney general said.

Last week, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said his government would allow the FBI and the CIA to interview Al Bayoumi.

Meanwhile, Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Kadafi, who has assisted U.S. law enforcement with information about Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks, said on ABC's "This Week" that the terrorist network had spread since it commandeered commercial airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Unfortunately, Bin Laden has become a prophet as far as the Islamic world is concerned," Kadafi said.

"He has become a symbol of resistance, of dissent in the Islamic world. This is a fact. We made him such a man or such a thing. America made Bin Laden a saint."

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