Washington: At least two of the three men involved in a possible al Qaeda plot to pull off an attack coinciding with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 are believed to be US citizens or have US travelling documents, government officials said.
Their primary mission is to explode a car bomb in either New York or Washington, but if that proves impossible, they have been ordered to simply cause as much destruction as they can, one US official said on Friday.
Word that al Qaeda had dispatched would-be attackers reached US officials in midweek. A CIA informant who has proven reliable in the past approached intelligence officials overseas to say that the men had been ordered by newly minted al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Sunday by doing harm on US soil.
The tipster says the would-be attackers are of Arab descent and may speak Arabic as well as English. Counterterrorism officials were looking for certain names associated with the threat, but it was unclear whether the names were real or fake.
Counterterrorism officials have been working around the clock to determine whether the threat is accurate, but so far, have been unable to corroborate it, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
In the meantime, extra security was put in place to protect the people in the two cities that took the brunt of the jetliner attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon a decade ago. It was the worst terror assault in US history, and al Qaeda has long dreamed of striking again to mark the anniversary. But it could be weeks before the intelligence community can say whether this particular threat is real.
Undaunted by talk of a new terror threat, New Yorkers and Washingtonians wove among police armed with assault rifles and waited with varying degrees of patience at security checkpoints on Friday.
Security worker Eric Martinez wore a pin depicting the twin towers on his lapel as he headed to work in lower Manhattan on Friday where he also worked 10 years ago when the towers came down. "If you're going to be afraid, you're just going to stay home," he said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, too, made a point of taking the subway to City Hall.
Briefed on the threat Friday morning, President Barack Obama instructed his security team to take "all necessary precautions”, the White House said. Obama still plans to travel to New York on Sunday to mark the 10th anniversary with stops that day at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Washington commuters were well aware of the terror talk.
Cheryl Francis, of Chantilly, Virginia, said she travels over the Roosevelt bridge into Washington every day and doesn't plan to change her habits. Francis, who was in Washington on September 11, 2001, said a decade later the country is more aware and alert.
"It's almost like sleeping with one eye open," she said, but she added that people need to continue living their lives.
The intelligence community regularly receives tips and information of this nature. But the timing of this particular threat had officials especially concerned, because it was the first "active plot" that came to light as the country marked the significant anniversary, a moment that was also significant to al Qaeda, according to information gleaned in May from Osama bin Laden's compound.
The US government has long known that terrorists see the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and other uniquely American dates as opportunities to strike. Officials have also been concerned that some may see this anniversary as an opportunity to avenge bin Laden's death.
Britain, meanwhile, warned its citizens who are travelling to the US that there was a potential for new terror attacks that could include "places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers”.
Acutely aware of these factors, law enforcement around the country had already increased security measures at airports, nuclear plants, train stations and more in the weeks leading up to September 11. The latest threat, potentially targeting New York or Washington, prompted an even greater security surge in those cities. US embassies and consulates abroad had also boosted their vigilance in preparation for the anniversary.
At Penn Station in New York, transit authority police carried assault rifles and wore helmets and bullet proof vests as they watched crowds of commuters. Police searched passengers' bags as they entered the subway, and National Guard troops in camouflage fatigues moved among riders, eyeing packages.
In Washington, Police Chief Cathy Lanier warned that unattended cars parked in suspicious locations or near critical buildings and structures would be towed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was "a specific, credible but unconfirmed report that al Qaeda, again, is seeking to harm Americans and in particular, to target New York and Washington”.
"Making it public as was done yesterday, is intended to enlist the millions and millions of New Yorkers and Americans to be the eyes and the ears of vigilance," she said on Friday morning during a speech at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
That the threat is credible but not corroborated means that the information came from a single source, New York Mayor Bloomberg explained on Friday during his weekly WOR radio address.
"Corroboration means you get multiple sources, which increases the likelihood that it's real," he said. "Credible means that it's possible to do."
These sorts of vague descriptions are typical intelligence talk in an environment where tips come from all places and in all shapes— a stolen diplomatic cable, a satellite image showing tribesmen gathering in an area that's typically isolated, a snatched bit of conversation between two terrorists overheard by a trusted source, a phone number, a document, an e-mail, an airplane ticket.
"Figuring out who would-be attackers are, or even whether they exist, could take months, where the drumbeat of national security wants answers in minutes or days," said Phillip Mudd, a former top counterterrorist official at the CIA and the FBI. "You have to tell everyone what you heard, and then try to prove the information is legitimate."
First Published: Saturday, September 10, 2011, 11:55