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Ridge Warns of Specific Threats

Al Qaeda has detailed plans to attack East Coast financial institutions, including the World Bank and the NYSE, official says.

August 02, 2004|Jonathan Peterson and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — U.S. government officials, citing unusually detailed information, warned Sunday of plans by terrorists to attack financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia and, for the first time, raised the threat level on a localized basis.

Buildings targeted for possible car- or truck-bomb attacks include the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Inc. offices in New York, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, and the headquarters of Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., officials at the Department of Homeland Security said.

"This afternoon we do have new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters Sunday, maintaining that the quality of the intelligence was in stark contrast to the "usual chatter."

Terrorists assembled a wealth of information about the institutions, officials said -- including details about their construction, the best methods of discreet observation, the locations of nearby hospitals, police stations and schools, and even the number of pedestrians who pass by on weekdays.

As a result, Ridge said, law enforcement and private security would impose an array of measures to enhance the security of those facilities, including parking restrictions, added police and more careful screening of individuals, motorists, mail and deliveries. New York City officials said they would increase their monitoring of bridge and tunnel traffic.

Homeland Security officials said they had no details on when attacks might occur. But they said the intelligence, gleaned from multiple sources in multiple locations, appeared to be part of an effort to disrupt the U.S. political process, which culminates with the Nov. 2 presidential election.

"I certainly realize that this is sobering news, not just about the intent of our enemies but of their specific plans and a glimpse into their methods," Ridge said, describing the financial institutions as "iconic economic targets" of great interest to Al Qaeda.

The information has sparked a frenzy of activity in intelligence circles over the last 48 hours, including frantic attempts to confirm it and emergency briefings with officials in the affected areas.

"The [U.S.] intelligence community got it sometime Friday, shared it with its members, and the information was so specific they immediately began trying to corroborate it," one senior Homeland Security official said in an interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Briefing reporters, several senior counterterrorism officials from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and CIA at times seemed to be reading from what appeared to be physical evidence seized from terrorism suspects. One official said the information contained the most specific detail he had seen in two decades of counterterrorism work.

"What these people had in their materials [included] surveillance materials, what types of explosions would be needed to melt the [building] infrastructures, where the banks of elevators were and the security checkpoints," the senior Homeland Security official said in an interview.

Terrorists also possessed specific information about what security personnel wore at the buildings in Washington, whether they were armed and when they made their rounds, the senior official said.

"The quality of this intelligence ... is rarely seen, and it is alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information," Ridge told reporters.

Officials did not disclose the sources of the information, which they said included striking details that arrived Friday night. Last week, Pakistani authorities captured Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, one of the FBI's 22 most wanted terrorists and an alleged participant in the 1998 bomb- ings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Ghailani had been the subject of an intense manhunt by U.S. officials, who feared he was plotting devastating attacks in the United States or against American interests overseas.

U.S. officials raised the threat level to orange, indicating a high probability of a terrorist attack, but only for the possible target areas in Washington and Newark, while leaving most of the nation at yellow, or elevated risk -- the mid-point of the scale. Nationwide, the threat level has been raised to orange, and then lowered to yellow, five times since the Sept. 11 attacks.

New York City has remained at orange since the scale was instituted in March 2002, although officials there made clear that the latest information would prompt additional security measures around the financial district.

"New York City continues to be a target of choice for those who want to destroy our way of life," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a City Hall news conference. "There will be an even greater law enforcement presence at sensitive and symbolic locations across the city."

The Republican National Convention is to be held at Madison Square Garden starting Aug. 30.

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