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U.S. raises terror alert amid al-Qaida rumblings

Attorney General John Ashcroft warns weapons of mass destruction could be used in a new attack.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2003

WASHINGTON -- With the al-Qaida network abuzz about imminent terrorist activity, federal authorities Friday placed Americans on heightened alert for an attack.

It was the second time authorities officially moved the color-coded index from "yellow" to a more serious "orange" since the system was developed to communicate with the public when the threat of a terrorist attack is perceived to have risen.

In announcing the change, Attorney General John Ashcroft said information indicated an attack might be planned to coincide with the mid February end of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Ashcroft suggested an attack could involve biological, chemical or radiological weapons, noting arrests last month in connection with the discovery in a London apartment of the deadly poison ricin. Other than the information about the hajj, Ashcroft's warning was as hazy as past alerts, with no specific target indicated.

Ashcroft denied the shift to a higher level of alertness was connected to the impending war in Iraq.

Asked about Iraq at a news conference, Ashcroft said al-Qaida has a pattern of attacking Westerners that is independent of the issue of war.

He said the October bombings of an Indonesian night club in Bali and of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate al-Qaida's continued interest in lightly guarded "soft targets" such as apartment buildings, shopping malls or hotels.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has warned for months an American attack on Iraq is likely to spur retaliatory terrorist attacks on the United States.

Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, noted spy agencies at other times have picked up intense "chatter" about a possible terrorist attack, but no heightened alert was issued.

"I think you have to ask what makes this different from all the other times there has been lots of intelligence chatter? Well, we are making plans for a military invasion of Iraq," Pena said.

He added: "And they have chosen to highlight the possibility of chemical and biological attack. Now, what is it that we are accusing Saddam of having? Chemical and biological weapons.

"Connect the dots. This alert has largely, in my opinion, a lot to do with a buildup to a war in Iraq," Pena said.

Ashcroft warned the nation's infrastructure and "symbolic targets" remain at risk. Added White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "Not all can be known, because we have an enemy who is trying to hide from us."

For days, government officials debated whether to raise the threat index. One issue was whether it would hurt the index's credibility with the public to move to a higher level without more specific information.

The other time the level was raised to orange was Sept. 10, just before the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Fleischer said President Bush was aware electronic eavesdropping was turning up increased chatter among al-Qaida operatives of a new attack.

Friday morning, the Homeland Security Council, composed of representatives of various government agencies, met in the White House situation room to decide whether to raise the threat level.

Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recommended the president raise the threat index, Fleischer said.

"This information has been corroborated by multiple intelligence sources," Ashcroft said. He did not provide details.

Because of the heightened alert, airport screeners will perform more random searches of travelers and more air marshals will be in the skies, Fleischer said.

Customs and immigration inspectors "will be questioning people more closely" at borders and cargo inspections are "likely to go up," he said.

Locally, Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said the Sheriff's Office has not called in extra deputies and has not assigned more patrols. However, deputies have been told to pay attention to safety around bridges and power plants. A St. Petersburg police spokesman said the department will not be stepping up patrols.

Tampa Police Department spokesman Katie Hughes emphasized that despite the increase in the warning level there had been no specific threats to the Tampa Bay area. She encouraged residents to look for suspicious activity and not to hesitate to report anything that seems awry.

A Tampa International Airport spokeswoman said passengers will see more law enforcement and canine presence, and there will probably be more extensive searches of carry-on luggage.

"We ask you to remain aware and remain alert," Ridge said Friday, addressing Americans. "We are not recommending that events be canceled or travel or other plans be changed."
[AP, Times art]

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