Monday, July 05, 2004

Al Qaeda has unambiguous plans to hit the homeland

Worries About Conventions Drive New Security Plans
Al Qaeda Warnings Persist as Democrats, GOP Prepare for Gatherings

By DAVID JOHNSTON, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, — The federal authorities, concerned about a terror attack during this summer's national political conventions, have begun a new effort to identify potential extremists inside the United States, including conducting interviews in communities where terrorists might seek refuge, government officials said.

Republicans will meet at New York's Madison Square Garden in August. Democrats will gather in Boston later this month.

The fears about an incident during the conventions or later in the year have also led state and local officials to impose extraordinary security precautions. Persistent if indistinct intelligence reports, based on electronic intercepts and live sources, indicate that Al Qaeda is determined to strike in the United States some time this year, the officials said in interviews last week.

Almost half the budgets in each convention city will be spent on security, local officials said. The Democratic National Convention will be held in Boston at the Fleet Center from July 26 to 29. The Republican National Convention will be held in New York at Madison Square Garden from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

New York is regarded as a higher risk than Boston by counterterrorism officials because President Bush is a Republican and because of consistent intelligence.

"Al Qaeda has unambiguous plans to hit the homeland again," James L. Pavitt, the C.I.A.'s outgoing head of clandestine operations, said in a speech in New York last week, "and New York City, I am certain, remains a prime target."

Pasquale J. D'Amuro, the head of the New York F.B.I. office, said in an interview that nearly all of the more than 1,100 agents in the office, the bureau's largest field division, will be involved in collecting intelligence and other security tasks before the convention.

Convention planners expanded their security requirements, at the urging of federal officials, after the March 11 commuter train attacks in Madrid that killed 191 people.

While the intelligence is not yet clear or specific enough to justify increasing the country's color-coded alert level, the officials said, there are signs of rising concern in the government. On Friday, cabinet members were briefed on the latest intelligence, which, administration officials said, indicates Al Qaeda's intention to strike in the United States, but does not suggest when or where an attack might occur or who might be behind it.

Recent intelligence reports have hinted that an attack might involve relatively crude materials in an uncomplicated operation, the officials said, suggesting the possibility of a car or truck bomb rather than a plot relying on sophisticated weapons or training like the commercial aviation studies undertaken by the hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Some of the information has indicated that potential attackers might not be young Arab men, but religious extremists from other countries, possibly in Africa. For that reason investigators have begun to more closely examine visa holders already in the United States from countries like Somalia, Kenya and Nigeria.

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are also starting to conduct interviews in communities where potential terrorists might seek to blend in with local populations. The officials said that the interviews were based on intelligence about who might pose a threat, but would also be patterned on the informational interviews conducted in Arab-American neighborhoods after the Sept. 11 attacks and in Iraqi-American communities at the start of the American-led invasion in 2003.

At the bureau's headquarters in Washington, officials have organized the '04 Task Force, a team of analysts and investigators at the bureau's strategic command center there who are seeking out investigative avenues that could reveal vulnerabilities or signs of preparation for an attack. The team was formed in response to criticism by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and from others that the bureau had failed to think imaginatively about how an attack might be carried out.

In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, has called on a 10-state consortium of law enforcement agencies, from Maine to Delaware, to share intelligence about warning signs of terrorist planning.

"We think we know the targets that might have great economic impact or cause large loss of life," said James K. Kallstrom, a senior terrorism adviser to Mr. Pataki. "But we know terrorists might not be in proximity to those targets, so we have put a series of tripwires in place throughout New England."

In New York, the cost of security is expected to exceed $75 million, of the total convention cost of about $166 million, as concerns have broadened to include not only the week of the convention, but also the weeks before and after it.

The Police Department will increase uniformed and plainclothes patrols in many parts of the city, focusing on landmarks, tourist sites, sites related to the convention, bridges and tunnels, airports and simply places where people gather. Much of the focus will be on the subway system.

For Boston, the security bill is now estimated to reach $50 million, twice the original estimate and more than half the roughly $95 million overall convention cost.

The Secret Service has ordered some 40 miles of roads closed around the Fleet Center, where the Democrats will meet, including Interstate 93, a section of which runs above ground just 40 feet from the arena. The shutdown of major roads near the convention site is the central and most controversial part of a complex security plan. The plan involves multiple police agencies and includes random checks of handbags and packages on buses and subways by police and bomb-sniffing dogs, as well as closed security zones.

New York is considered to be a more likely target, but security planners in Boston said that area had many potential targets of its own, including a complex infrastructure, prestigious universities and, perhaps most of all, symbolic sites.

"This is the seat of liberty," said Carlo A. Boccia, the city's director of homeland security, gesturing from the window of his City Hall office toward Faneuil Hall and the Old State House. "You attack that, it's the very heart of America."

The Boston Police Department estimated that the security measures ordered by the Secret Service added about $9.5 million in police, firefighter and medical worker overtime for a total of $32.5 million, the largest portion of the security cost.

At first, the authorities seemed likely to order closings only during the evening hours of the convention. But it quickly became apparent that because of the complex nature of the roads that feed into downtown Boston, it would take hours to clear the backed-up traffic. So the ban has been extended from roughly 4 p.m. to midnight.

Some 200,000 vehicles travel on I-93 on a weekday, and 24,000 people use the commuter rail line from the north. But because of congestion on alternate routes, the ban is likely to affect tens of thousands more.

The traffic ban has outraged commuters as well as business owners who fear the city will be nearly deserted except for the 36,000 visitors expected for the convention. State employees have been encouraged to take the days of the convention off, and many businesses have told their employees to do the same.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino bristles at criticism.

"This convention will be good for Boston," Mayor Menino said in an interview. He added, "Since 9/11, our whole world has changed drastically. The Secret Service is really dictating the conditions. It's remarkable how many public safety agencies have been working together."

As in Boston, security concerns in New York will focus on a fairly broad time frame. Raymond W. Kelly, the city police commissioner, said the heightened measures would be in place weeks before Aug. 30, when the Republican National Convention opens, and will continue after the event ends Sept. 2.

"The lead-up, the run-up to the convention is an area that certainly requires additional attention," Mr. Kelly said, "because anything that happens in that period could be just as disruptive as something that happens during convention week."

The Madrid bombing has also led to stepped-up security plans in New York. About 10,000 officers will be deployed, up from 6,500, to provide security at Madison Square Garden, city hotels, bridges and tunnels, demonstration areas, landmarks and other sites, according to a previously undisclosed May 10 memorandum prepared by the city's Washington lobbying office in an effort to obtain more federal money for security.

Securing the city's transportation system is a complex task. About seven million people a day ride the subway system. The Long Island Rail Road carries about 270,000 riders each day on 730 trains, while the Metro-North Railroad carries about 250,000 people daily.

In addition to increased subway patrols, the memorandum said, the department's efforts include deploying officers to Pennsylvania Station, beneath Madison Square Garden, as well as other transit, and an inspection plan for each commuter rail line that enters Penn Station.

The security around Madison Square Garden will include shutting down major Midtown streets for several hours each day, ringing the arena with concrete barriers and allowing demonstrators to gather only at one corner of the site, measures that officials acknowledge will disrupt large swaths of Manhattan.

But Madison Square Garden is not the only concern. Because any attack in the city would probably cause the disruption sought by extremists, Mr. Kelly said, the department will also focus on other events that week, including the U.S. Open tennis tournament and New York Yankees and Mets games.

Mr. D'Amuro, of the F.B.I., also expressed concern about the periods before and after the convention.

"We know one of the things that Al Qaeda looks at is security measures in place and whether they think they could be successful in carrying out an attack," he said. "And if they don't believe they will, they'll postpone it, they'll put it off to another time."

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