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Official warns of 'multiple' al Qaeda attacks

Operation Liberty Shield

Operation Liberty Shield

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports on the increase in the terror threat level to orange which signifies a high risk of terrorist attacks (March 18)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The State Department's top counterterrorism official said Tuesday that although al Qaeda's capabilities have been diminished "there is a certainty that terrorists will attempt to launch multiple attacks" against the United States and its allies.

Cofer Black, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that al Qaeda is "still dangerous, still vicious, but I would say things are not going well for the terrorists." He said leaders from Osama bin Laden down currently "spend more time trying to figure out how to keep from getting caught than they do trying to launch operations."

Black told CNN there are indications of "increased interest" on the part of terrorists in attacking the United States "in this time period" of the expected war with Iraq, though he added that al Qaeda would like to strike the United States "at any time."

Black said that in addition to the recent capture of al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the seizure of another, lower level al Qaeda figure is also likely to reap intelligence benefits. Yassir al-Jaziri was captured Saturday in Pakistan. Black told CNN he is "a second-tier guy but one who knows things."

FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Pistole told senators the FBI is watching "what Iraqi intelligence officers or others may try to do in terms of enlisting these other groups" to commit terrorist acts against U.S. targets.

TOM RIDGE ON 'OPERATION LIBERTY SHIELD'
  • Temporary flight restrictions over some U.S. cities

  • Heightened inspection of imported foods

  • Governors asked to increase states' security

  • More security in transportation hubs

  • FBI will use 5,000 agents in event of war

  • Monitoring Internet for signs of attack

  • Some seekers of political asylum may be detained

  • More patrols of U.S. ports and waterways
  • Pistole said there is some intelligence about the Iraqis "indicating an interest in taking terrorist actions against the U.S."

    Sites at particular risk

    In a conference call Monday evening between CIA officials and the nation's governors, officials said the intelligence community believes the attacks would involve mass casualties with maximum economic, psychological and symbolic impact.

    The CIA said it believes al Qaeda will rationalize the use of chemical, biological or radiological weapons based on the large number of casualties the United States may inflict in its military campaign.

    Buildings, subways, and enclosed areas are at particular risk, the CIA said, and Iraqi sleeper agents proficient in assassination, kidnapping, and bombing are a concern.

    One day after President Bush's ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he leave Iraq or face military action, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday announced Operation Liberty Shield, a plan to enhance security nationwide.

    "We have taken these actions because intelligence reporting indicates that while al Qaeda and those sympathetic to their cause are still a principal threat -- the principal threat -- Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups, other regional extremist organizations and ad-hoc groups or disgruntled individuals may use this time period to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests either here or abroad," Ridge told reporters at a briefing.

    His agency also raised the terror threat alert level from yellow to orange. On the five-tiered, color-coded terror alert system, yellow represents an elevated threat, orange is high and the gravest, red, represents a severe risk.

    The department statement said reports from intelligence sources -- some of them highly reliable -- suggest the al Qaeda network probably would claim it is acting on behalf of the Muslim world and Iraqi people rather than the regime of Saddam Hussein.

    Calling it a "reasonable and prudent temporary action," Homeland Security Department officials said asylum applicants from nations where al Qaeda members, sympathizers and other terror groups are known to have operated would be detained while they are being processed.

    Airports and seaports

    Border protection and increased security at airports and railways, and greater road security are also planned.

    • The Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday announced flight restrictions for aircraft flying in the New York City and Washington areas, and near Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Unless commercial or private pilots are granted specific exemptions from air traffic controllers, no flights are allowed within a three-mile radius around the parks or below 3,000 feet in the area.

    • The Transportation Security Administration, which is in charge of security at the nation's airports, announced several new measures Monday night, including random inspections of vehicles, increased canine patrols and increased law enforcement presence in and around airports. The agency will also be putting up temporary signs inside airports asking the public to be aware of the increased threat level and to report unattended bags and suspicious behavior.

    • The Coast Guard will protect offshore petroleum sites near large coastal population centers, and security is being increased at chemical facilities, nuclear power plants, key electrical grids, bridges and subways.

    • There will also be increased monitoring of diseases and food security, Homeland Security said. The Agriculture Department is alerting food producers to step up their security -- such as inspecting all vehicles and escorting all visitors -- and is helping monitor feedlots, stockyards, and import and storage areas. Imported food will also come under increased scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is asking health departments and medical care providers to report unusual diseases or disease patterns.

    CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor and Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.


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