U.S. Sees 'Credible' 9/11 Terror Threat

Sep 9, 2011 Issues: Counterterrorism

Wall Street Journal – by Carol E. Lee and Adam Entous

The U.S. has received specific and "credible" intelligence that al Qaeda militants in Pakistan may be pursuing a plot to carry out car or truck bombings in Washington and New York City, timed with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.

Ten years after 9/11, the landscape for terrorism and counter-intelligence has changed significantly, says Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA. He talks with WSJ's John Bussey about changing techniques, including the administration's history of waterboarding and surveillance.

U.S. officials said they received the intelligence within the last 48 hours, and that they are taking it seriously because of its proximity to the 9/11 anniversary. As one sign of the importance with which it is being handled, President Barack Obama was briefed on the threat multiple times on Thursday, and directed U.S. intelligence officials to "take all necessary steps to ensure vigilance," a White House official said.

Officials didn't specify the nature of the plot, or whether it was to target tunnels, bridges or specific sites. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was briefed twice on the threat Thursday and called it "very specific, and it's credible, but so far it has not been confirmed.''

The threat comes as Americans and officials across the country, including President Obama and former President George W. Bush, are set to mark the anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday with high-profile events at each site of the attacks—New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon in Virginia.

The U.S. has long been aware of al Qaeda's interest in carrying out a 9/11 anniversary attack, in part because of materials seized by U.S. forces in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May. The government already had begun to intensify security at airports, train stations, military bases and public buildings in anticipation of a possible attack.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and Commissioner of the New York City Police Department Raymond Kelly spoke to the media about the new terror threat on Thursday evening.

U.S. officials said al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan were believed to be behind the alleged plot, a development likely to renew the debate about the terror group's current reach and strength. Though the organization is believed to be badly weakened, U.S. officials acknowledge al Qaeda in Pakistan remains able to operate under a handful of leaders of particular concern, particularly the group's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and top lieutenant Abu Yahya al-Libi.

Three other current al Qaeda leaders also are believed to present a particular threat to the U.S. because they have lived here in the past. They are Adnan el Shukrijumah, who is alleged to have been involved in the 2009 New York subway bomb plot; Jude Kenan Mohammad, an American alleged to have helped recruit five Alexandria, Va., men; and Adam Gadhan, an American who serves as an al Qaeda spokesman.

Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement that U.S. officials expect more intelligence about potential attacks in coming days, given the high-profile nature of the 9/11 anniversary. "Sometimes this reporting is credible and warrants intense focus, other times it lacks credibility and is highly unlikely to be reflective of real plots under way," Mr. Chandler said. "Regardless, we take all threat reporting seriously, and we have taken, and will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate any threats that arise."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appearing with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and other officials Thursday night, said the New York Police Department is deploying additional resources to keep residents safe. He said that New Yorkers should go about their business as usual and that the city's 9/11 observance will go ahead as planned.

Washington's mayor, Vincent Gray, said the threats were being taken seriously but urged residents to remain calm. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said security around the city, already heightened because of the anniversary, would be ramped up further.

In the wake of the death bin Laden, President Obama has stressed that al Qaeda had been diminished. He published an op-ed Thursday in USA Today in which he stressed that the U.S. has made gains against terrorists, including delivering "justice" to bin Laden and putting al Qaeda on the path to defeat. Yet he also wrote that despite those gains, the U.S. "must never waver in the task of protecting our nation."

A U.S. counterterrorism official said al Qaeda, which was behind the 9/11 attacks, has "been knocked back on their heels, but they will try to attack the U.S. any way they can." Similarly, Mr. Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said in a breakfast with reporters Thursday that al Qaeda has "taken it on the chin," because of the bin Laden death and attacks on other leaders. Mr. Brennan said the group had been "degraded significantly" but still aspired to attack the U.S.

The U.S. has gone on heightened alert for previous 9/11 anniversaries and at other times in the past. A visible bristling of security measures is or will soon be on display nationwide this weekend, complementing other measures that have been put into place over the past decade. Airports all over the country are boosting visible security measures, which include more uniformed police, additional canine teams and increased random vehicle inspections. Even small, regional airports are stepping up security measures in the wake of a federal warning about the potential for terrorists to use small planes in a terror attack.

In New York City, thousands of extra police officers will patrol the streets and subway stations, and hundreds of surveillance cameras will monitor the World Trade Center site, home to Sunday's observance ceremony.

In the District of Columbia, police have restricted officers' leave in order to maintain an increased presence throughout the weekend, Ms. Lanier, the police chief, said. That will include extra uniformed and plainclothes officers near the U.S. Capitol, as well as additional police cruisers and SWAT teams. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will also boost its presence, with more marked cars and agents earmarked for key spots in the nation's capital.

Washington residents already have seen a heightened presence of uniformed, heavily armed police patrolling subway stations, and Amtrak will boost the number of canine teams on the Northeast Corridor. And in San Francisco, the California Highway Patrol will ramp up security at landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, including more patrols by car, bike, motorcycle and helicopter.