WASHINGTON – A "spectacular" Al Qaeda attack intended to inflict massive casualties and disrupt the American economy may be in the works, the FBI warned officials Thursday night.
The bulletin, given out to authorities nationwide, does not tell where, when or how such an attack might occur. But the warning's blunt language was exceptional.
"Sources suggest Al Qaeda may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma," says the alert, which was posted on the FBI's Web site early Friday after its existence was reported by The New York Times and The Associated Press.
Despite the tone of the warning, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday the national alert status would remain unchanged.
"We continue to be on high levels of alert — we continue to take additional precautions," McClellan said, explaining that the report's lack of specificity did not warrant raising the nation's official terrorist threat status above code yellow, the middle of the five-level scale.
"The American people are in many ways the first line of defense," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Friday. She said the latest report contained no new information, calling it instead a "summary of intelligence, not a new warning."
Meanwhile, officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Friday that another senior Al Qaeda operative has been taken into U.S. custody. They declined to identify him. A number of senior operatives with ties to Sept. 11, the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and other attacks remain at large.
Rice, briefing reporters at the White House on President Bush's trip next week to Europe to attend a NATO summit, said a lot is being done by the administration behind the scenes to protect "critical infrastructure" around the country from possible attacks.
Safeguarding the nation against terrorism "is a central focus of this administration," she said. The campaign against terrorism is "a war that is many times being fought in the shadows, so it's not always on television screens," Rice added.
The report says that the likeliest targets are the aviation, petroleum and nuclear-power industries, plus well-known national landmarks.
Warnings about those industries and landmarks have come several times over the past year, but the threat seems to be greatest now because of the increased Al Qaeda communications "chatter" picked up by intelligence agencies, the ongoing U.S.-Iraq standoff and the recent audio message believed to be from Usama bin Laden.
"Target vulnerability and likelihood of success may be as important to a weakened Al Qaeda as the target's prominence," according to the warning.
"Thus, Al Qaeda's next attack may rely on conventional explosives and low-technology platforms such as truck bombs, commercial or private aircraft, small watercraft, or explosives easily concealed and planted by terrorist operatives," it says.
The FBI and other agencies are communicating possible threats and assessments of risk to state and local law enforcement agencies and specific industries that could be targeted.
In recent weeks, the FBI has issued warnings about possible attacks on U.S. railroads and on the energy industry, as well as a more general warning about heightened risk during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started Wednesday and ends Dec. 5.
"We're especially sensitive to time frames which might be thought by the enemy to be a time when they might want to make a statement," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
On Wednesday, the FBI told authorities in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington to be aware of threats against hospitals. Even though that threat was assigned low credibility by senior law enforcement officials, the FBI is preferring to err on the side of caution in terms of giving out information, officials said.
The idea is to increase vigilance among local police and people working in industries that are potential targets.
Last week, the State Department warned that Thursday's execution of Pakistani Aimal Khan Kasi in Virginia could lead to reprisals against Americans. Two days after his November 1997 conviction, assailants shot and killed four American oil company workers in Karachi, Pakistan.
Kasi was executed for killing two CIA employees in a 1993 shooting outside the agency's headquarters.
The recent nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, the assault on Marines in Kuwait and the attack on a French oil tanker near Yemen — as well as the U.S. strike on a car carrying suspected terrorists, also in Yemen — are described by several law enforcement officials as actions that point to an increased threat.
"If there was any doubt in anybody's mind that Al Qaeda remains a dangerous threat to America or the world, I suspect it was dispelled with the string of attacks," Tom Ridge, director of the White House homeland security office, said Thursday.
It is up to Ridge and Ashcroft to decide whether a change in threat level is warranted. Ashcroft and Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson are among a few Justice Department officials who see the daily raw intelligence on terrorism gathered by the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies.
The threat level was elevated from yellow to orange for two weeks in September to coincide with the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. It has remained at yellow since then, but the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq has lawmakers and the Bush administration on guard.
"I think that as we ratchet up toward Iraq, we have to believe that there will be attempts in this country anywhere, perhaps everywhere, to do us harm," Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller say the nation is far better prepared to detect and stop a terrorist attack than it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001. They say the intelligence sharing among agencies is vastly improved, as well as information about airplane passengers, people who enter through U.S. border crossings and students who lose their status and remain in this country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.