US counterterrorism officials are chasing a credible but unconfirmed al-Qaida threat to use a car bomb on bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington.
It was the first word of an “active plot” timed to coincide with the sombre commemoration of the terror group’s September 11 attacks a decade ago that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Counter-terrorism officials were investigating the threat as police in New York and Washington said they would increase their already stepped-up staffing levels in light of the recent intelligence.
Law enforcement officials were pursuing three people who may be travelling to the US or who have recently entered the country, based on the detailed information received by the US intelligence community late Wednesday, officials said.
The intelligence suggested that al-Qaida planned to car bomb one of the two cities that were hit 10 years ago.
Vice President Joe Biden said today that there was no confirmation that anyone had travelled into the US for such a plot although the tip came from a credible source. “There’s no certitude,” he said.
“The thing we are all most worried about is what they call a ’lone ranger,’ a lone actor, not some extremely complicated plan like it took to take down the World Trade towers,” said Mr Biden.
The threat came in a single piece of information and was so specific – and came at such a time of already heightened alert – that it could not be ignored, officials said.
“There is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information,” the head of the FBI’s New York division, Janice Fedarcyk, said. “As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rode the subway today to assure commuters that the city is fully prepared for a potential terror threat before the anniversary of the attacks.
Police commissioner Raymond Kelly said police were beefing up security at bridges and tunnels, setting up vehicle checkpoints, doing bomb sweeps of parking garages, and towing more illegally parked cars.
New York City commuters were told to expect a show of force at two main railway stations, Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station, and at the Times Square subway station. Troops in camouflaged uniforms moved among the throngs at Pennsylvania Station, eyeing packages.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade centre site, was also at a heightened state of alert today.
Spokesman Steve Coleman said there would be increased vehicle checks at all crossings, increased police presence at all facilities, and increased bag checks at airports, bus and rail terminals.
In Washington, the police presence was increased and the city’s police chief, Cathy Lanier, said officers would work 12-hour shifts for the near future. She said that scheduling changes were “part of our plan” and that “maintaining a certain sense of unpredictability is essential to the success of any security plan.”
A US official said the source of the terror tip indicated that al Qaida’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was involved in planning the plot. But the official also said that many in the intelligence community question that and other aspects of the source’s information.
Law enforcement officials have been particularly wary after information gleaned from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan indicated that al Qaida had considered attacking the US on this anniversary and other important American dates.
Officials have also been concerned that terrorists would see the anniversary as an opportunity to retaliate against the US for killing bin Laden in a military raid in May.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a joint intelligence bulletin last night to law enforcement around the country urging them to maintain increased security and be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that police there were deploying additional resources around the city but that New Yorkers should go about their business as usual, and the city’s observance of the attacks will go on as planned.
In Washington, law enforcement officials said they were working 12-hour days indefinitely, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier said unattended cars parked in unusual locations risked being towed.
Briefed on the threat information yesterday morning, President Barack Obama directed the US counterterrorism community to redouble its efforts, a White House official said.