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The World | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

FBI Warns of Attacks Set Off by Iraq War

February 28, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The FBI has drawn up a sweeping domestic contingency plan to counter possible attacks prompted by a war with Baghdad, including monitoring Iraqis and potentially thousands of others who may launch "sympathy" strikes, officials said Thursday.

Bush administration officials Thursday also lowered the nation's terrorism threat alert by one level to code yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, but stressed that Americans remain at "significant risk" of attack even before hostilities ensue.

"The lowering of the threat level is not a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is passed," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a joint statement. "Detained Al Qaeda operatives have informed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that Al Qaeda will wait until it believes Americans are less vigilant and less prepared before it will strike again.

"For this reason, and for the safety and security of our nation, Americans must continue to be defiant and alert," the statement said. ''We must always be prepared to respond to a significant risk of terrorist attacks.''

Indeed, hours before the threat level was lowered, the FBI warned local law enforcement agencies of a new kind of potential danger posed by Al Qaeda operatives in the United States, saying they may be engaged in "meticulous planning" for possible suicide attacks and other terrorist acts.

Al Qaeda operatives may be conducting "prolonged static surveillance" of possible terrorist targets by disguising themselves as panhandlers, demonstrators, shoe-shiners, food or flower vendors and street sweepers, according to the confidential weekly law enforcement alert sent Wednesday to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies.

The FBI and other counter-terrorism officials are also concerned about a different terrorist threat -- from followers of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, officials said.

Those attacks, they said in interviews, could come from "sleeper" agents that may have infiltrated the United States to wreak havoc in the event of war, or from third-party groups that could conduct "proxy" attacks on behalf of Hussein.

"You can't rule out the possibility that they are going to try and do something like that," one U.S. official said. "They did that in the Gulf War -- [Iraq] sent out a number of intelligence operators to conduct terrorist attacks. They were singularly unsuccessful, but you can't count on them being quite as inept this time. There are a lot of Iraqis in this country."

In testimony before Congress on Feb. 11, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III also warned of potential attacks emanating from Iraq. "Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material," Mueller said.

The FBI contingency plan also was spurred by a concern that Iraqis living in the United States, as well as some Iraqi Americans or other sympathizers, might become so angered by a military strike on Baghdad that they launch attacks on their own or on an appeal from Hussein, according to counter-terrorism officials.

"Obviously, we are aware of an upcoming possible situation; we are having problems with Iraq, we could go to war," said an FBI official who requested anonymity. "So you get ready. You look at all possible scenarios and look at ways the FBI can be prepared and the public can be protected."

As the rhetoric of war intensified in recent months, FBI headquarters quietly instructed its 56 field offices to "have a plan in place to make sure we're ready" for such retaliatory counter-strikes, whether they come from Al Qaeda, Iraqi terrorists or anyone else.

FBI officials said the nationwide contingency plan includes an intensive effort to locate and monitor -- and in some cases keep under surveillance and detain -- potentially thousands of Iraqis who have come to the U.S.

The plan is a comprehensive one, which includes "a detailed checklist" of things for members of the FBI's 66 Joint Terrorism Task Forces to do now, and in the event of military action.

"Some of those activities have already taken place," a senior FBI official said at a briefing Thursday with reporters at FBI headquarters. "Others will take place if and when hostilities ensue."

FBI agents have been conducting voluntary interviews with Iraqis, and alerting Muslim leaders that some within their community may want to act out in retaliation against military strikes on Iraq. They are trying to develop informants within those communities.

And the FBI is urging Iraqis and other Muslims to come forward in the event of war if they experience any kind of hate crimes directed at them, one FBI official said.

In an effort to ensure that all FBI field offices respond to a war in similar fashion, each office was ordered to send its plans to Washington. After those were reviewed, FBI management sent a plan back to the field offices with a list of things to do, said the official.

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