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Higher Terror Risk Is Declared

Homeland Security officials elevate the national threat level amid reports that attacks in the U.S. may be in the works.

May 21, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt, Josh Meyer and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Terrorist threats against Western targets Tuesday forced the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and prompted Homeland Security officials to elevate the national threat level, amid intelligence reports raising the prospect of attacks in the United States.

In Washington, officials boosted the national threat level from "elevated" to "high risk" of a terrorist attack, responding to the deadly bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and what officials feared was a possibly resurgent Al Qaeda operating on U.S. soil.

It was the fourth time in the last year that the threat level has been raised to orange from yellow on the color-coded assessment scale. The last increase was on the eve of the U.S. war in Iraq, and the threat was scaled back to yellow in mid-April after hostilities waned. Like the previous alerts, Tuesday's triggered heightened security measures by cities, states and businesses across the country.

In Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton announced Tuesday that the police will step up patrols around 605 potential targets citywide and reestablish checkpoints at Los Angeles International Airport. Authorities also asked the public to report suspicious behavior immediately.

The nationwide change in the threat level "is based upon the recent terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, also in conjunction with intelligence reports concerning anti-U.S. terrorist group intentions," Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said at a news conference in Washington.

"The United States intelligence community believes that terrorists continue to plan attacks against targets in the United States, and for this reason, the alert level has been raised," Hutchinson said. "There's been an increased specificity in terms of the threats that we hear, but not necessarily specific in terms of the target."

The heightened alert comes as intelligence and law enforcement officials are evaluating evidence that a new crop of Al Qaeda operatives may be mobilizing for attacks in the United States.

The FBI has previously said that there are potentially hundreds of Al Qaeda sympathizers in the United States, and has prosecuted a number of people allegedly tied to the group.

The FBI has detained two Arab men who officials suspect may have been sent to the United States to scout out new targets, a law enforcement official said. The official cautioned, however, that the FBI has yet to link the two men to Al Qaeda, and notes that information about their identities and arrests are under court seal.

Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials confirmed that the alert was raised more because of general concerns about attacks within the United States rather than specific and corroborated bits of intelligence.

One official said the latest move was based almost entirely on "logic" -- the result of the recent attacks combined with a continuing stated desire by Al Qaeda to revisit targets in the United States that it previously failed to destroy.

In recent days, U.S. officials have received some ominous pieces of intelligence, including an intercepted e-mail in which the sender warned of a possibly "devastating" and imminent attack on major East Coast cities such as Boston and New York, according to one senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The author of the e-mail message, who officials believe was overseas, told the recipient in the United States that all Muslims should leave such cities within 48 hours, the senior official said. In a second e-mail intercepted by U.S. authorities, the sender also mentioned Washington and referred to possible attacks in New York and elsewhere on the eastern coastline, the official said.

Both messages were described in a confidential FBI bulletin that was circulated internally and to high-level counterterrorism authorities. But the consensus among U.S. officials, several said in interviews, was that the two e-mails, as well as other intercepted discussions about possible attacks in the United States, were uncorroborated and too general to warrant greater alarm.

Several U.S. counterterrorism officials, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they remain convinced that, although Al Qaeda would like to launch attacks on U.S. soil, the vast majority of terrorist plots that appear to be in motion -- if not all of them -- are aimed at targets overseas.

"Clearly, we've laid out an analysis about why [the American public] should be concerned, but there is no specific indication about an attack here," said a second U.S. official. "There is an extrapolation that goes way back to after 9/11, when we knew [Al Qaeda] wanted in the worst way to attack us here," the official said. "But that is more logic and deduction."

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