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U.S.: Government Raises Terrorism Alert To Second-Highest Level, Citing Security Threats

The U.S. government has raised its terror alert to its second-highest level, citing an elevated risk that militants might launch attacks in the United States during the holiday season. RFE/RL looks at the alert and the events that motivated it.

Prague, 22 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In raising its terror alert to its second-highest level, U.S. officials say they are responding to increased communication among terrorist group members that could indicate planning for a large-scale attack.

Announcing the stepped-up alert level yesterday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said threat indicators are "perhaps greater now than at any point" since the 11 September 2001, attacks by Al-Qaeda on the United States.

The 11 September attacks -- which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. -- killed nearly 3,000 people. Another attack that day was thwarted when passengers fought with hijackers for control of an airplane apparently headed for Washington, D.C. The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday, Ridge described his reason for elevating the threat warning level this way: "The U.S. intelligence community has received a substantial increase in the volume of threat-related intelligence reports. These credible sources suggest the possibility of attacks against the homeland around the holiday season and beyond."

He continued: "The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New York, in the Pentagon, in the fields of Pennsylvania nearly two years ago."

Ridge warned that aircraft could again be used to carry out a terrorist strike, saying, "We continue to hear...the interest in using aircraft as a means of attack."

He said that, in response, security will be increased at airports nationwide and that more agents will be placed on the country's borders. And he said that air and sea patrols will be stepped up to protect critical ports and shipping lanes.

But Ridge said that raising the threat level to "orange" -- denoting a "high risk" of terrorist attacks -- should not cause Americans to disrupt their own travel plans.

The holiday season is one of the most important economic times of the year for the U.S. domestic travel industry, as well as for retail stores of all kinds. Any disruption of seasonal business could deal a heavy blow to the U.S. economy, which is slowly recovering from a prolonged downturn.

In New York, officials say police patrols are being increased and will cover bridges, tunnels, and landmark buildings, such as the New York Stock Exchange. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "We're not letting our guard down."

In Chicago, city officials say they have asked federal authorities to change airplane flight paths away from the downtown area for the duration of the alert.

This is the fifth time that U.S. homeland security officials have declared the five-level, color-coded, terror-threat level at "orange" since the warning system was introduced after the 11 September attacks.

Previous occasions were in September 2002 on the first anniversary of the attacks, in February 2003 due to intelligence regarding an increased Al-Qaeda threat, in March 2003 in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and in May of this year after bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

The current raised warning level is likely to add fuel to the simmering political debate in the United States over the administration's effectiveness in combating terrorism since 11 September.

The White House has said the war on terrorism is making progress and that many of Al-Qaeda's operations have been disrupted. But the leading Democratic challenger to U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly faulted the administration for digressing from tackling terrorism to fight the war in Iraq.

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said last week that the U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein had failed to make the United States safer and that the invasion of Iraq was launched "in the wrong way at the wrong time."

In preparing for the war, the White House argued in part that Hussein's regime might provide weapons of mass destruction to international terrorist groups. However, no such weapons have been found.

Another Democratic challenger, Dick Gephardt, has faulted the White House for doing too little to develop a better security infrastructure in the United States to counter terrorist threats. Gephardt said yesterday that "homeland security is not nearly what it ought to be."

The new stepped-up warning level in the United States has prompted at least one other country, Japan, to say it also will take additional precautionary measures. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said today that Tokyo will strengthen its security arrangements, even though Japan itself has received no specific information of impending strikes.

"Our country has not received any specific information regarding terror attacks, but since the United States is taking such precautions, Japan should take appropriate measures. We will reinforce the exchange of information between concerned offices both in and outside of Japan," Fukuda said.

The increased alert announcement coincides with -- but does not appear tied to -- a recent statement purportedly made by a top deputy of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that threatens to target Americans everywhere. Al-Jazeera, the Persian Gulf-based Arabic-language satellite channel, broadcast the statement by Ayman al-Zawahri on 19 December, but the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says the audiotape does not appear to have been made recently.

The U.S. has never declared the top level of alert, "red," under its five-level warning system. Security experts have said that level would only be declared if an attack on U.S. soil was imminent or under way.