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Source: Top al Qaeda operative told of possible hijackings

Ali Abd al-Rahman al Faqasi al-Ghamdi
Ali Abd al-Rahman al Faqasi al-Ghamdi

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A high-level al Qaeda operative was one of the sources of information leading to the latest warning about possible suicide hijackings of airliners, a government source told CNN Wednesday.

The source said Ali Abd al-Rahman al Faqasi al-Ghamdi -- allegedly one of the key organizers of the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 23 people, including nine Americans -- gave information concerning possible hijackings.

He surrendered to Saudi authorities in June and is being held in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. government source told CNN. (Full story)

The Department of Homeland Security sent out a one-page advisory to airlines over the weekend, warning that terrorists might be plotting suicide hijackings to be executed by the end of this summer, with possible targets including sites in the United States and other countries. (Full story)

The warning came nearly two years after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington shocked the world. The hijackings of four jets on September 11, 2001, killed more than 3,000 people. (Full story)

"Attack venues may include the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia or the East Coast of the United States due to the relatively high concentration of government, military and economic targets," the latest advisory said. Britain, Italy and Australia are U.S. allies in the war in Iraq.

Outcry over air marshals program

In his first White House news conference in four months, President Bush said Wednesday he is confident U.S. authorities would foil any possible suicide hijacking attempts. (Full story)

Bush said intelligence data indicates terrorists are eyeing international flights and that the al Qaeda terrorist network "tends to use the methodologies that worked in the past."

"We're focusing on the airline industry right now, and we've got reason to do so," he said. "But I'm confident we will thwart the attempts."

Bush's comments followed a Washington Post report suggesting the hard-pressed Transportation Security Agency, facing a $900 million budget shortfall, was planning to shift funding from the air marshals program, a move that would postpone advance training for the marshals and some new hiring.

After initially downplaying the report, administration officials late Wednesday acknowledged there were schedule changes last week to the air marshals program due to budget cuts.

The officials said they don't yet know if any high-risk flights were affected and added there was no official policy guidance calling for the changes.

Senate Democrats responded with outrage to any such cuts.

"Cuts in air marshals should not happen now and it should not happen ever, not until we know that the war on terrorism has clearly been won," said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

"They're cutting into the bone ... when they don't have enough money to fund air marshals, which was one of the things we talked about the most right after 9/11 as a way of preventing another 9/11 from happening," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge sought to downplay the issue: "Americans should know that every air marshal we have is being deployed, and additional resources are being directed to that very critical mission."

Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary in charge of border security and transportation, wrote a letter to TSA Administrator James Loy authorizing that "federal air marshal deployments be maintained on all appropriate domestic and international flights consistent with available threat information."

Furthermore, Hutchinson wrote, "I am authorizing the expansion of deployments" -- using personnel from other federal law enforcement agencies, if necessary -- "to augment current FAM [Federal Air Marshal] resources and provide additional resources on high-risk flights and routes."

Neither Ridge nor Hutchinson mentioned any numbers in discussing increased deployments of air marshals.

Congressional Democrats say they have tried five times to increase funding for TSA but have been rebuffed by the administration and their Republican colleagues on each occasion.

"The bottom line is the Homeland Security agency is like the proverbial bed where there are five children and enough covers for four," Schumer said.

Boxer said it would be "irresponsible, not cost effective," to cut back on airline security at a time of heightened concerns over terrorist attacks.

"You cannot put a price on American lives and what this would do to our economy," she said.

CNN correspondents Kelli Arena and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.

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