US aware of terror threat, not afraid

2011-09-10 07:43

US intelligence officials scrambled to nail down information on a possible al-Qaeda strike timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, while New Yorkers and Washingtonians went about their day seemingly undaunted by talk of a new terror threat.

How valid was the threat? Counterterror experts worked to answer that question for residents and visitors in the two cities that took the brunt of the jetliner attacks that killed about 3 000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It was the worst terror assault in US history, and al-Qaeda has long dreamed of striking again to mark the anniversary. But it could be weeks before the validity of the threat is known.

Security worker Eric Martinez wore a pin depicting the twin towers on his lapel as he headed to work in lower Manhattan yesterday. He worked downtown 10 years ago and lived through it all. He still works there and said: “If you’re going to be afraid, you’re just going to stay home.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, too, made a point of taking the subway to City Hall.

Briefed on the threat yesterday morning, President Barack Obama instructed his security team to take “all necessary precautions”, the White House said.

Obama still planned to travel to New York tomorrow to mark the 10th anniversary with stops that day at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, sites where two more hijacked planes crashed on September 11, 2001.

Washington commuters were well aware of the terror talk.

Cheryl Francis said she travelled over a bridge into Washington every day from a suburb and did not plan to change her habits. Francis, who was in Washington on September 11, 2001, said a decade later the country is more aware and alert.

“It’s almost like sleeping with one eye open,” she said, but she added that people need to continue living their lives.

Late Wednesday, US officials received information about a threat that included details they considered specific: It involved up to three people, either in the US or who were travelling to the country; a plan concocted with the help of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri; a car bomb as a possible weapon and New York or Washington as potential targets.

Officials described the information to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the sensitive matters publicly.

Counterterror officials were looking for certain names associated with the threat, but it was unclear whether the names were real or fake.

At least one of the three people involved in the plot was thought to be a US citizen, several senior US officials said.

The intelligence community regularly receives tips and information of this nature. But the timing of this particular threat had officials especially concerned, because it was the first “active plot” that came to light as the country marked the significant anniversary, a moment that also was significant to al-Qaeda, according to information gleaned in May from Osama bin Laden’s compound.

The US government long has known that terrorists saw the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and other uniquely American dates as opportunities to strike. Officials also have been concerned that some may see this anniversary as an opportunity to avenge bin Laden’s death.

Britain, meanwhile, warned its citizens who were travelling to the US that there was a potential for new terror attacks that could include “places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers”.

Acutely aware of these factors, law enforcement around the country already had increased security measures at airports, nuclear plants, train stations and more in the weeks leading up to September 11.

The latest threat, potentially targeting New York or Washington, prompted an even greater security surge in those cities. US embassies and consulates abroad also had boosted their vigilance in preparation for the anniversary.

At Penn Station in New York, transit authority police carried assault rifles and wore helmets and bulletproof vests as they watched crowds of commuters. Police searched passengers’ bags as they entered the subway, and National Guard troops in camouflage fatigues moved among riders, eyeing packages.

Retired preschool teacher Roseanne Lee was in town to visit her son and said her taxi was stopped twice at police checkpoints on its way from the Upper East Side to Penn Station. Police looked in the windows of the cab, but did not ask questions, she said. At one checkpoint, police were searching a moving van.

“But I don’t care,” said Lee. “It’s better to be safe. You can’t stop doing what you’re doing because of these threats. You just have to be careful.”

In Washington, police chief Cathy Lanier warned that unattended cars parked in suspicious locations or near critical buildings and structures would be towed.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said there was “a specific, credible but unconfirmed report that al-Qaeda, again, is seeking to harm Americans and in particular, to target New York and Washington”.

“Making it public as was done yesterday, is intended to enlist the millions and millions of New Yorkers and Americans to be the eyes and the ears of vigilance,” she said Friday morning during a speech at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

That the threat is credible but not corroborated means that the information came from a single source, Bloomberg explained yesterday during his weekly WOR radio address.

“Corroboration means you get multiple sources, which increases the likelihood that it’s real,” he said. “Credible means that it’s possible to do.”

These sorts of vague descriptions are typical intelligence talk in an environment where tips come from all places and in all shapes, a stolen diplomatic cable, a satellite image showing tribesmen gathering in an area that’s typically isolated, a snatched bit of conversation between two terrorists overheard by a trusted source, a phone number, a document, an email, a plane ticket.

“Figuring out who would-be attackers are, or even whether they exist, could take months, where the drumbeat of national security wants answers in minutes or days,” said Phillip Mudd, a former top counterterrorist official at the CIA and the FBI.

 “You have to tell everyone what you heard, and then try to prove the information is legitimate.”

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