Al-Qaida said almost ready to attack United States

WASHINGTON – The United States has “credible intelligence frommultiple sources” that al-Qaida is determined to launch an attackin the United States in the next few months.

Speaking at a Justice Department news conference, AttorneyGeneral John Ashcroft said the intelligence, together with recentpublic statements attributed to al-Qaida, “suggest that it isalmost ready to attack the United States.”

“This disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaida’s specificintention to hit the United States hard,” Ashcroft said.

In particular, Ashcroft said, seven people being sought by theUnited States “all present a clear and present danger to America.All should be considered armed and dangerous.”

The warning was not accompanied by an increase in the U.S.terror alert status, however.

In Oregon, FBI Special Agent in charge Robert Jordan said theregional Joint Terrorism Task Force was ready to respond to anythreat information that might come in.

“It might be easy to assume that out here in the Northwest weare remote and far away from the huge urban areas that would be anobvious threat,” he said. But Jordan noted that the Sept. 11hijackers had lived throughout the United States, including smallercommunities.

He said there was no specific threat to Oregon or theNorthwest.

In Washington, D.C., FBI Director Robert Mueller, who appearedwith Ashcroft, cited a “heightened threat to United States’interests around the world. … We do not know what form the threatmight take.”

The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq due to the politicalrepercussions of the March 11 train bombings in Spain, Ashcroftadded, could lead al-Qaida to attempt to influence U.S.politics.

The sudden warning returns the nation’s attention to terrorism,the issue that President Bush has highlighted as a central theme ofhis re-election campaign, after intense focus on other subjectslike Iraq and prisoner abuses in Iraq. Bush has lost ground in thepolls, falling in approval ratings to the lowest point of hispresidency.

The intelligence does not contain specifics such as timing,method or place of an attack. But officials say it is highlycredible and backed with greater corroboration than usual,including information that operatives may already be in the UnitedStates.

Mueller and Ashcroft drew new attention to enlarged photos ofseven suspected al-Qaida operatives that the FBI has been pursuingfor months. They include Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi nativewho once lived in Florida, and Aafia Siddiqui, a woman fromPakistan who studied at the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology.

In Oregon, Jordan said he could not say whether any of thesuspects had lived or visited the state.

“We are not aware of details of a plan,” Ashcroft said whenpressed for specifics.

The attorney general said recent intelligence indicates thatal-Qaida operatives now may be traveling with their families toattract less suspicion and that the terror network has been seekingrecruits “who can portray themselves as European.”

He portrayed the “ideal al-Qaida operative” as an individual inthe late 20s or early 30s.

To focus on the threat, the FBI has established a 2004 ThreatTask Force and FBI analysts are reviewing previously collectedintelligence to see if it contains any clues to the latest threat.There will also be a series of interviews conducted by the FBI withindividuals who could have information about potential plots.

Earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said there are nocurrent plans to lift the national alert status from yellow, whereit has stood since January. That’s the midlevel alert level on afive-step warning program.

“First of all, every day we take a look at the overall threatreporting that we receive,” Ridge said on NBC’s “Today Show.”

“There’s not a consensus within the administration that we needto raise the threat level. … We do not need to raise the threatlevel to increase security. Right now, there’s no need to put theentire country on a (elevated) national alert,” he said.

Asked whether Ridge’s comment suggested a difference of opinionbetween his office and Ridge’s, Ashcroft told reporters: “I believewe’re all on the same page.”

Mueller said that “extraordinary precautions” already were beingtaken to protect the sites of the two political conventions – theDemocratic convention in Boston in late July and the Republicanconvention in New York in late August – as well as next month’sGroup of Eight economic summit on Sea Island in Georgia.

Some law enforcement and firefighter union representatives,supporters of Democrat John Kerry for president, suggested that thetiming of the threat report was suspicious because of polls showinga sagging approval rating for President Bush. InternationalAssociation of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger toldreporters in a conference call that the intelligence has been inthe government’s hands for weeks.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, however, deniedthat there is a political aspect to the threat report.

“The president believes it’s very important to share informationappropriately,” McClellan said. “We do that in a number of wayswhen it comes to looking at the threats we face here in thehomeland.”