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Homeland Security Warns of Al Qaeda Activity

It says terror group may opt for tactics not seen in the past in the U.S., such as the use of car bombs.

September 05, 2003|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security warned Thursday that Al Qaeda might launch attacks in the United States using tactics not employed here in the past, such as planting car bombs or hijacking airliners in Mexico or Canada so they can be flown into American targets.

But the department did not raise the national threat alert level from yellow, for "elevated" risk, to orange, for "high" risk because "the intelligence information we have isn't specific enough to do that," department spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Homeland Security officials have said they would avoid frequent raising and lowering of the threat level for fear that Americans would grow jaded about terrorism threats. Earlier this year, the government raised the threat level to orange in four months, and many citizens as well as public officials all but ignored them.

The U.S. issued the warning Thursday for several reasons, officials said: the approaching anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks; an alarming rise in intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda operatives are scouting an array of targets; and an increase in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Iraq.

Meanwhile, the FBI is warning that terrorists might try to poison food or water supplies, and senior bureau officials said Thursday that Al Qaeda is determined to attack Americans at home even though the organization appears to have a relatively small presence in the U.S.

The FBI has not detected any individuals or cells actively planning attacks, such as those almost two years ago that killed about 3,000 people in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. Most Al Qaeda operatives in the United States provide logistical support such as travel documents, recruitment and fund-raising, said Larry Mefford, the FBI's chief counter-terrorism official.

"My view is, it's very small but it does exist," Mefford said of Al Qaeda's U.S. presence. "Our concern continues to be what exists in the United States that we're not aware of."

Airline officials said that even before Thursday's warnings, they were expecting a light travel day on Sept. 11 because travelers avoid the date out of caution.

In a conference call with governors and state civil defense officials, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge explained that while he was not elevating the threat level, "they should review and maintain their security procedures," Johndroe said.

"We remain concerned about Al Qaeda's continued efforts to plan multiple attacks against the U.S. and U.S. interests overseas," said a Homeland Security advisory that was sent to local authorities, airlines and critical industries and was also released to the public. "However, at this time, we have no specific information on individual targets or dates for any attack."

Mefford said Al Qaeda remains America's most dangerous terrorist foe because of the group's tenacity, patience and willingness to use tactics, including weapons of mass destruction, that demonstrate "they have no inhibitions and they have no rules."

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