WASHINGTON – The government is aware of no credible or specific information that points to any terror plot tied to the anniversary of the September 2001 attacks, according to a new confidential threat assessment from the FBI and Homeland Security Department obtained by The Associated Press.
The new assessment, dated Thursday, said that intelligence agencies remain concerned that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are committed to carrying out attacks on Western targets. But it said there was no information pointing to any known plot. The bulletin made no mention of Syria, even as President Barack Obama sought congressional approval to use military force against the Syrian government.
Four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on last year's anniversary. Three others were killed and more than 260 others were injured when two men set off bombs near the finish line of the popular Boston Marathon in April. There was no specific or credible intelligence about those attacks, either.
The terror threat to the U.S. is different than it was 12 years ago. In 2001, there was credible intelligence about a terror plot, but that information wasn't shared with the right people. Today, the threat is more diffuse. Cyberattacks threaten to disrupt major U.S. operations in the government and the private sector. Lone actors represent another threat — one or two people who are not directly affiliated with Al Qaeda but who subscribe to the terror group's ideology and want to strike out because they disagree with U.S. policies.
Today, officials are concerned about retaliatory strikes if Obama moves forward with plans to use military force against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, which the administration condemns for the death of 1,429 in a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 near Damascus. Assad's government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government. Iraqi officials and militant groups have said that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are threatening to retaliate against American interests inside Iraq if the U.S. goes ahead with strikes, as Tehran is a close ally of Assad.
The FBI has been reviewing old case files involving Hezbollah and Iran's Quds Force, reaching out to its sources to see whether they know anything new, a law enforcement official said. The official offered few details about the outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity because the official did not want to publicize the bureau's investigative strategies.
In its intelligence bulletin, the FBI and Homeland Security Department reminded law enforcement of activity that could indicate a planning for an attack, such as surveillance and questions about security operations. They also provided tips to avoid Internet denial of service attacks, such as a warning Aug. 27 from a Tunisian hacker group. The group, called "Tunisian_Hackers II" threatened a 10-day denial of service attack against U.S. banks starting Sept. 1. By Sept. 5, law enforcement had seen no evidence that the hacker group carried through with the plan, the bulletin said.
Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission report, said Americans should be reassured to know that there is no credible or specific information about a terror attack tied to the 9/11 anniversary next week. But today's threats are so difficult to detect because they're often unknown to law enforcement.
"The threat has become more spread out, more difficult, more means could be used," said Hamilton, who currently co-heads the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, which plans to release a report Monday on the terror threats to the U.S. "Identifying particular individuals who might turn violent is very, very hard to do. It's a big country — lots of people out there, and it's a huge challenge to law enforcement."
And it's difficult to get specific intelligence that an attack will happen at a certain date and time, Hamilton said.
"It's one thing to intercept intelligence which enables you to stop a big attack, which we've been successful at doing over the years," he said. "It's quite another to identify every lone wolf, every solitary actor."