Sources: al Qaeda linked to bank threat
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI announced Friday that the government has received a new, unsubstantiated terrorist threat against U.S. financial institutions -- a threat, sources said, that was to be carried out by al Qaeda operatives.
"Unspecified terrorists are considering physical attacks against U.S. financial institutions in the Northeast, particularly banks, as part of their campaign against U.S. financial interests," the FBI said.
Sources said the information indicated a possible mode of attack was suicide bombing.
The information that led to the alert, the sources said, came from a variety of intelligence sources, including al Qaeda detainees captured as part of the ongoing war against terrorism. Law enforcement learned the information in the last couple of days, the sources said.
One U.S. official told CNN that Abu Zubaydah, the highest ranking al Qaeda leader in U.S. custody, was a key source in providing the information about the threat. Zubaydah -- al Qaeda's head of operations and man in charge of recruiting -- was arrested in Pakistan earlier this month, handed over to U.S. custody and is being held at an undisclosed location.
U.S. officials said they are treating what Zubaydah tells them with considerable caution. As one U.S. official put it: "Guys like that are quite capable of lying for effect."
Officially, the FBI and top law enforcement officials described the latest threat as "unsubstantiated."
"It is important to note there is no specific threat being communicated to any specific institution," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a speech in Pittsburgh.
"We are not changing our assessment of the overall national threat level, and we are not asking banks to close or urging people to stay away from banks. We are alerting law enforcement and financial institutions and the American people to be vigilant and to be aware of anything that appears suspicious," said Ashcroft, who canceled a planned trip to Europe in part because of the threat.
The FBI transmitted the alert to law enforcement officials and financial institutions in several Eastern seaboard states out of "an abundance of caution."
The FBI sent the alert to authorities in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia.
The decision to disseminate the threat information followed a meeting of officials with the FBI, the Justice Department, the Office of Homeland Security, and the Treasury Department.
The FBI said the threat level for those states and the nation as a whole remains at "yellow," or "elevated," the third of five levels of risk according to the government's newly devised threat alert system.
The FBI said it has asked all law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to report any threats or suspicious activity to their local FBI office.
Speaking in San Francisco, FBI Director Robert Mueller said people should be suspicious of individuals entering banks who "normally don't come into banks" and of "trucks parked alongside the building."
"Banks should not close, but should be on heightened alert," he said.
Ashcroft said it was important for the government to alert citizens of the threat.
"We believe that this information sharing disrupts and prevents terrorist activity. That is one of the key reasons why we share information developed in threat assessment process," he said. "We have learned from our reporting that when we elevate security precautions we help disrupt potential terrorist activity."
Ashcroft canceled a scheduled trip to Europe that was to begin Saturday, the Justice Department said late Friday. The attorney general and key aides were set to leave Washington for a five-day visit to Moscow, Prague and Geneva where they had scheduled a series of meetings with law enforcement officials on terrorism and other international criminal issues.
An Ashcroft aide acknowledged the terrorist alert issued Friday was one of several factors in the decision to cancel the trip. Several Washington protests planned for this weekend were another reason given for the last-minute decision.
The official said there was no single overriding reason, and discouraged speculation that a major imminent development had forced the cancellation. The official acknowledged the attorney general would "not feel comfortable" leaving the country at this time.
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