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FBI searches for 'lone wolf' terrorists

National threat level lowered to yellow

Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security
Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security

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• Interactive: The hunt for al Qaeda
• Audio slide show: Bin Laden's audio message, 2/03
• Special report: Terror on tape
• Special report: War against terror
• Department of Homeland Security: external link

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite the official lowering of the terrorist threat level Thursday, a senior FBI official said an intensive counterterrorism effort to locate potential suicide bombers, sleeper cells, and other terrorist threats within the United States is continuing at a feverish pace.

This official said authorities are monitoring Hezbollah followers within the United States because law enforcement is concerned they could go on the offensive if war with Iraq breaks out. The No. 1 priority for law enforcement, he said, is "the identification of sleeper cells."

"We've been at a red-hot level since 9/11," the official told reporters at an FBI headquarters briefing. "The thing that scares the hell out of me is what's out there that we don't know about."

Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge issued a statement Thursday, lowering the terror threat level from high to elevated -- orange to yellow -- citing the end of the Muslim hajj pilgrimage as a key factor.

The Transportation Security Administration Thursday directed the nation's airports to return to the security levels of code yellow -- meaning they no longer need to do vehicle searches.

At the same time, the officials warned that the country is still in danger of a terror attack.

start quoteDetained al Qaeda operatives have informed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that al Qaeda will wait until it believes Americans are less vigilant and less prepared before it will strike again.end quote
-- Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge

One of the threats attracting the FBI's attention is the so-called "lone wolf" who, acting on his own, chooses to blow up a selected target.

"How do you identify a suicide bomber? We're always trying to look at that. I'm somewhat shocked we haven't seen some of that in this country," said the FBI official.

He said FBI agents have traveled to Israel and worked with intelligence and law enforcement officials there to try to gain a better understanding of who might be a potential suicide bomber.

"If we get into hostilities are we concerned about people who feel passionate about the Palestinian issue, about the Iraqi issue? We've seen a lot of media attention given to that. We're very concerned about that, and we've taken a lot of steps to be prepared if that should occur," the official told reporters at an FBI headquarters briefing.

Some of the followers of Hezbollah -- a militant Muslim group designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization -- have allegedly taken recent trips to training camps in Lebanon.

Several Hezbollah adherents have been charged by federal authorities with crimes relating to fund raising for political causes, but to date have not engaged in violence within the United States.

FBI behavioral scientists have assisted investigators in developing the profile of a suicide bomber including information relating to an individual's lifestyle, financial practices, and social skills.

No change in many cities

The national threat level was raised from yellow to orange on February 7 based on specific intelligence, the government said.

However, the National League of Cities released a new survey Thursday showing 40 percent of U.S. cities did nothing in response.

Many city officials complained that the threat alert system is not specific enough and said they would like to see a regional alert system that provides more geographic specificity, the organization said.

According to the survey of 402 cities:

• 60 percent did show increased concern

• 72 percent said threat alert system is useful

• 28 percent said system not useful

• 66 said they knew what to do when threat level increased

• 5 percent said they did not know what to do

• 29 percent said they needed more federal guidance about how to respond

Officials: Remain alert

New York City, the site of the September 11, 2001, terror attack at the World Trade Center, remains on orange alert.

"As we rebuild and move forward with confidence," said New York Gov. George Pataki, "we have to be very, very proactive to do everything we can to protect the people of the city and the state."

The Ashcroft and Ridge statement said the decision to lower the threat level "was based on a careful review of how this specific intelligence has evolved and progressed over the past three weeks, as well as counter-terrorism actions we have taken to address specific aspects of the threat situation.

"Among the factors we considered was the passing of the time period in or around the end of the hajj," the pilgrimage to Mecca, ending in the middle of February.

The statement stressed that the movement is not "a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is passed.

"Returning to the elevated level of risk is only an indication that some of the extra protective measures enacted by government and the private sector may be reduced at this time."

The statement emphasizes "that the United States and its interests are still at a significant risk of terrorist attack. Detained al Qaeda operatives have informed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that al Qaeda will wait until it believes Americans are less vigilant and less prepared before it will strike again.

"For this reason, and for the safety and security of our nation, Americans must continue to be defiant and alert. We must always be prepared to respond to a significant risk of terrorist attacks."

CNN Justice Producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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