Threat intelligence from al Qaeda source
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The information that led the government to raise the U.S. threat alert status Tuesday came primarily from the senior al Qaeda "operative responsible for organizing efforts in Asia," according to U.S. intelligence officials and a senior State Department official.
The information involved the prospect of car bombings on U.S. facilities in southern Asia, said Attorney General John Ashcroft. Other information indicated possible and suicide attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East, he said.
The al Qaeda operative, who has been held by another government for about two months, talked about eight or nine U.S. facilities that were to be targeted, the officials said.
"He only recently started to talk. We compared his information with other intelligence and believe it is legitimate," one official said.
One senior State Department official said the information was credible "because it's specifically detailed, and it specifically fitted into what we [already] had."
While officials said the threats deal with U.S. facilities overseas, they emphasized the nation's intelligence agencies heard similar "chatter" last year at this time.
"Remember, last year we thought if there were an attack it could be overseas. We were incorrect," a senior FBI official said.
Two State Department officials said the United States got the information early Monday morning.
The al Qaeda figure was the primary source of the information about threats to U.S. embassies and other facilities in Southeast Asia, these two officials said. They said the information was not filtered but received directly from the operative.
The officials said the person was not one of those publicly known to have been apprehended. They declined to say which government was holding him.
The senior FBI official said the intelligence indicated "al Qaeda is organizing attacks particularly in Southeast Asia. It's not a couple of people. It's organized."
Embassies and consulates have been closed for a review of their "security posture" in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as in Malawi, Pakistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Tajikistan.
A senior State Department official said the offices closed were not the only U.S. facilities under threat of attack but appeared more vulnerable.
He cited as an example the embassy in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which does not have a "setback" from main roads and is next to the street. He said a similar situation exists in Hanoi, Vietnam.
After the 1998 terror bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the State Department was advised to place its embassies at least 100 feet back from main roads and thoroughfares.
Other sources warn of suicide bombings
The information about possible suicide bomber attacks in the Middle East came from sources other than the al Qaeda operative, according to the FBI official.
The FBI official and the others would not discuss where in the Middle East such attacks might occur, but the information warned of "Middle East males indicating a desire to attack American interests."
The FBI official specified it came from al Qaeda-related intelligence and not from terrorist groups such as Hamas or Palestinian organizations that have conducted suicide bombings aimed at Israel.
"Al Qaeda is a full-service terrorist organization. They don't need to work with other groups," the official said.
The officials said they also have "multiple" intelligence sources suggesting lower level al Qaeda members may attempt less sophisticated, small-scale terrorist attacks -- though there is no information on when or where.
A senior U.S. official said, however, that while the United States has no intelligence suggesting an attack was planned for the anniversary of the last year's September 11 attacks, "we do know lower-level types would like to mark the day somehow."
A senior State Department official said U.S. embassies have been warned to expect not only a possible "suicide bomber" but also "vehicle delivered bombs, cars and trucks" -- as opposed to airplanes.
He said there was no specific target date.
"We have to regard this in an open-ended manner -- [which] won't be significantly minimized October 1," he said.
The State Department said its embassies have asked local governments to provide "jersey barriers" to block or ban truck traffic around U.S. facilities and to screen vehicles in the same area.
CIA Director George Tenet detailed the new threat information Monday evening in a conference call with senior Bush administration officials.
Sources said Tenet also was expected to discuss the intelligence leading to the raised threat level warning in a closed door meeting of the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday evening.
On another matter, U.S. officials said they believe the voice on the tape made public Monday by Al-Jazeera television is indeed that of Osama bin Laden, though "when it was recorded is anybody's guess," one official said.
The senior FBI official repeated statements by Ashcroft that there is no intelligence indicating a threat to the United States itself: "Remember, last year we thought if there were an attack it could be overseas. We were incorrect."
CNN correspondents David Ensor, Kelli Arena, Andrea Koppel and Terry Frieden contributed to this story.
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