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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

National terrorist threat level raised

 •  Hawai'i's threat level remains at 'elevated'
 •  'High' alert untimely for U.S. travel industry

By John Mintz and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The government raised its terrorist threat level back to orange, or "high risk," yesterday after concluding that cells of the al-Qaida terrorist network worldwide have been activated and could strike in this country.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge decided to elevate the threat level after consulting with President Bush and other officials.

Associated Press

Government officials said they acted after intercepted communications suggested that al-Qaida is planning more attacks on targets overseas and intelligence warnings that recent suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco may be a precursor to a strike in the United States.

"The U.S. intelligence community believes that al-Qaida has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include attacks in the United States," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement yesterday. Ridge decided to elevate the threat level after consulting with President Bush and other top administration officials.

Meanwhile, the U.S., British and German embassies in Saudi Arabia were ordered closed yesterday, and Riyadh announced its highest state of alert because of what officials described as persuasive intelligence that al-Qaida is planning imminent suicide attacks with truck bombs there.

The embassy closings followed the arrest of two Moroccans at Jiddah Airport who were boarding a plane to Sudan. The men, and a third who is still being sought, are tied to an al-Qaida cell that launched suicide bombings against residential complexes in Riyadh on May 12, killing 34 people, including nine terrorists, officials said.

Relax, but stay alert

High risk alert

• Federal and local officials should consider canceling public events that might draw an attack and restrict access to power plants, reservoirs and government buildings to essential personnel.

• Last raised on March 17 after President Bush gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein 48 hours to capitulate or face war. Lowered to elevated risk on April 16 as major combat in Iraq ended.

The heightening of the terrorist alert level from yellow, or "elevated risk," to orange comes amid U.S. officials' fears that Memorial Day weekend could offer terrorists almost limitless potential targets. They urged Americans to remain alert during the holiday, but nevertheless advised people to take time off and relax.

"For all Americans, we recommend that you continue with your plans for work or leisure," Ridge said in the statement. "However, your vigilance at large public events or other locations where crowds gather can help us disrupt terrorists' plans. If you see anything suspicious, do not hesitate to contact your local FBI office."

This is the third time the government has raised the terrorism threat index in the past three months, and the fourth time it has been elevated since the five-level color-coded alert system was inaugurated in March 2002. The most recent orange alert — the second-highest level on the scale — coincided with the war in Iraq.

Landmarks a concern

U.S. officials said they were most worried about American landmarks that have drawn their concern in the past, including New York's subway system, the Sears Tower in Chicago and a number of sites in California.

Ridge said yesterday that the principal threat comes from al-Qaida "and those sympathetic to their cause." But, he added, "threats may also emanate from other anti-U.S. terrorist groups, regional extremist organizations, and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals not connected to existing terrorist organizations or state sponsors of terrorism."

He said possible means of attack include the type of suicide bombings seen in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as "small arm-equipped assault teams (and) large vehicle-borne explosive devices."

Raising the threat level to orange costs local governments millions of dollars in increased security costs, and has prompted bitter complaints from municipal officials in the past. That sensitivity was evident yesterday when Ridge spent the afternoon on the telephone in talks with state and local leaders.

'A lot of bad signals'

However, officials believe that by mobilizing the nation's security resources, they can discourage attacks by hardening targets and signaling vigilance.

Hours before the threat level was elevated, the FBI issued an alert to law enforcement agencies warning that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was possible. The alert, similar to a classified intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI Friday, warned that the Saudi and Moroccan bombings may be "a prelude to an attack on the United States.

"Although the FBI possesses no information indicating a specific threat in the United States, recipients should remain alert to potential terrorist operations in this country," the alert said.

Referring to the danger of an attack here, a senior government official said: "There are a lot of bad signals out there."

Government officials said that while they lack specific information that an attack could occur in the United States, the indications of advanced plans for assaults in a number of foreign countries are so worrisome that it was wise to tighten security here as well.

The attacks in Casablanca, Morocco — where 42 people, including 13 terrorists, died — and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were carefully orchestrated suicide bombings by teams of attackers believed to be linked to al-Qaida. The main targets were facilities associated with Westerners and, in the case of Casablanca, with Jews.

Authorities believe the gravest threat is to facilities where Westerners congregate in North Africa, East Africa, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, other countries on the Arabian peninsula, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"It's hard to know where this might happen," a senior U.S. official said. "Something is up somewhere."

U.S. officials are particularly worried about the vulnerability of the new U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which replaced the building destroyed by an al-Qaida bombing in 1998. Intelligence officials have warned of the possibility of an aircraft attack on the embassy.