Alert Level Back to Orange

May 20, 2003
Posted at: 2:13 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration raised the national terror alert level to orange Tuesday amid fears a wave of terrorist attacks overseas will spread to the United States.

Department of Homeland Security officials initially provided few specific reasons for the alert, which will set in motion a series of security measures around the federal government. It also advises cities, states and businesses to take extra security measures.

The alert was raised after top administration and counterterrorism officials reviewed intelligence reports suggesting domestic terrorist attacks were possible.

The decision to raise the terror alert warning came after President Bush's homeland security council met at the White House and presented the president with the recommendation for an increase, a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.

The new level, orange, marks a high threat of terrorist attacks. It's the fourth-highest level on the five-color scale. The previous level, yellow, marked an elevated risk.

Counterterrorism officials had previously described the bulk of the terrorism intelligence as pointing toward attacks overseas.

Officials believe al-Qaida has launched a series of strikes, loosely coordinated by the organization's top leadership, aimed at demonstrating al Qaida is still viable. They believe attacks in Morocco and Saudi are part of this.

The Bush administration has raised the terror alert level one notch three times previously, setting off a flurry of increased security measures by cities, states and businesses. Each time, the level was lowered back to yellow after a few weeks.

During the alerts, no domestic attacks were apparently attempted, leading some to question whether the orange alerts do anything more than frighten the public and cost taxpayer dollars, particularly in parts of the country where terrorist attacks are unlikely.

However, Homeland Security officials say heightened security can stop attacks without authorities realizing it — a would-be terrorist may pass on striking a target when he sees the extra guards.

The last time it was raised was during the Iraq war. It went down after most hostilities ended.

The alert system is designed to guide law enforcement agencies, businesses and the general public in their security decisions, and it is mostly up to local governments and companies to decide what measures to enact.

It is driven by world events and information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies, such as monitored communications between terrorists. This "chatter" sometimes spikes before an attack.

Officials say they want to take the alert level to orange only after receiving specific, credible information that attacks are planned.

"We have concerns about whether or not there are threats that go beyond Saudi Arabia," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "These matters are being looked at as we speak. We do have concerns about terrorists doing what they can to continue to inflict harm."

He said "chatter" picked up by U.S. agencies suggested new attacks could be possible.

Before going to the White House for the meeting, Ridge made his first-ever appearance before the new House Homeland Security Committee. He was not asked about the new threats or the possibility of raising the federal alert status and declined to take questions from reporters on his way out.

The FBI, in an advisory sent Friday to state and local law enforcement agencies, said the al-Qaida terrorist organization remains active and could hit U.S. and Western targets overseas as well as those on American soil.

The agency sent out another version of the bulletin on Tuesday. It repeated the same warning, but also said FBI has reason to believe the "Saudi Arabia and Morocco attacks (are) a possible prelude to U.S. attacks," according to law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the version sent Friday, the bulletin said that the U.S. intelligence community "assesses that attacks against U.S. and Western targets overseas are likely; attacks in the United States cannot be ruled out," federal law enforcement officials said.

However, officials say there is no credible information about an imminent attack.

The bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh show that al-Qaida "remains active and highly capable," the FBI bulletin said. Fleischer said the United States has concluded that al-Qaida was responsible for the Saudi attacks.

The FBI is assisting Saudi authorities in the investigation of the bombings on three Saudi housing compounds that killed 34 people, including eight Americans. Al-Qaida also is suspected in another series of bomb attacks Friday in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed 41 people.

The bulletin says the Saudi attacks featured "traditional hallmarks of al-Qaida operations" such as precise planning, surveillance and coordination among several teams. Each bombing involved a sedan followed by a truck or sport utility vehicle laden with explosives, with gunmen used to attack guards and overcome security measures.

These tactics show that al-Qaida has "a highly refined approach to suicide bombings" that show an increased capability when compared with, for example, the 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The FBI says the attacks also show that al-Qaida appears to be adapting its target list to so-called "soft targets" that are more lightly guarded than government or military installations. The FBI has warned before that terrorists could strike apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants and businesses.

Similar attacks blamed on al-Qaida include the October 2002 bombing of a nightclub district in Bali, Indonesia, which killed almost 200 people, and the suicide bombings of an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Kenya, which killed 12. In the Kenya attack, two missiles narrowly missed an airliner carrying Israeli vacationers.

"Further, these attacks suggest that al-Qaida may be deterred by enhancing security and changes in the security countermeasures adopted by potential targets," the bulletin said.

State and local police are urged to redouble their vigilance, especially for indications that operatives may be carrying out surveillance or attempting to acquire explosives or detonation devices. The FBI has previously warned that al-Qaida members could pose as tourists, homeless people or artists in carrying out surveillance.

The terror alert level was raised to orange for much of February, and then again from two days before the start of the war in Iraq until April 16.

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