For months, U.S intelligence and law enforcement have suspected terrorists would try to strike the power centers of New York or Washington around the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. On Thursday, authorities got their first credible information about a possible plot emanating from rural Pakistan.
The information gleaned by U.S. intelligence left the FBI looking for a handful of men—one possibly a U.S. citizen—who may have been dispatched on a mission to use vehicle explosives to launch an attack, possibly against bridges or tunnels, according to a source familiar with the intelligence developed in the last 24 hours.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington Mayor Vincent Gray confirmed Thursday night that both cities were treating the information seriously, even though it had not yet been corroborated. Both cities were taking extra precautions, ranging from expanded vehicle searches and added bomb-sniffing dogs to more police officers on the streets to conduct surveillance.
Homeland Security officials said the threat information was credible and specific but not yet corroborated, a category of threat information far more specific than the normal chatter intercepted by counterterrorism officials, and so it warranted immediate investigation.
The source told The Daily Beast that the new threat information emanated from the lawless, tribal regions of Pakistan where Al Qaeda and its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still have significant sway. The information was markedly detailed and matched some aspects of possible approaches to attacks that U.S. intelligence has heard in other venues over the last several months, the source said.
The FBI’s top official in New York City, Janice Fedarcyk, suggested at a news conference Thursday night that the threat may be linked to Al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda has shown an interest in important dates and anniversaries. In this instance it is accurate that there is credible, specific but unconfirmed information,” she said.
U.S. officials have braced for months for possible retaliatory strikes against the U.S. around the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, especially since the U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden back in May. The reasons are many.
First, Al Qaeda and its sympathizers treasure symbolic dates and anniversaries. Secondly, documents recovered from bin Laden’s hideout after the Special Forces operation indicated significant interest in a 10th-anniversary attack and included several concepts for such a strike.
And third, bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, lacks the charisma and support of his former boss and U.S. intelligence has suspected he would try to show his prowess by staging an attack on the anniversary to rally the troops and demonstrate his terrorists could still strike Americans at will.
President Obama was briefed on the new threat information Thursday morning, hours before his major speech to Congress on reviving the economy, but there were no immediate plans to change his schedule of September 11 commemorative events.
Obama is slated to appear alongside George W. Bush at a ceremony at ground zero in New York on Sunday, an event that already was blanketed by unprecedented security even before the new threat information.
While officials scrambled to check out the new threats, U.S officials and their allies have continued to make major strikes against Al Qaeda in recent days, thinning its leadership ranks. A CIA drone killed the terror group’s No. 2 operative, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in a strike in late August in rural Pakistan, and Pakistani forces then captured three other Al Qaeda operatives in recent days.