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Feds warn of 'spectacular attacks' from al Qaeda

FBI cites bin Laden tape but cautions no new intelligence

FBI cites bin Laden tape but cautions no new intelligence

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports on the latest terrorist threat warnings being issued by the U.S. (November 15)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Al Qaeda may be planning "spectacular attacks" in the United States that will cause "mass casualties" and "severe damage" to the economy, according to a federal law enforcement bulletin.

Even so, the warnings have not caused the Homeland Security threat level to be increased from yellow, or elevated risk, and FBI officials said there is no new intelligence that led to the strong wording of the bulletin.

The bulletin, issued Thursday by the FBI in its weekly law enforcement alert, stems from the release of the audiotape that is believed to contain Osama bin Laden's voice added to earlier intelligence reports.

That audiotape, along with previous intelligence and a "resurgence of al Qaeda operational activity" has spurred law enforcement to review the manner in which al Qaeda is operating.

FBI officials tell CNN that there is no specific information about the time, place or method of such attacks and no new intelligence that sparked the bulletin. FBI officials, in fact, believe the message in the bulletin is being overplayed and overstated by the media.

Nevertheless, the language in the document is more ominous than in other bulletins.

"In selecting its next targets, sources suggest al Qaeda may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy, and maximum psychological trauma," the bulletin said. "The highest priority targets remain within the aviation, petroleum, and nuclear sectors as well as significant national landmarks.

"However, target vulnerability and likelihood of success may be as important to a weakened al Qaeda as the target's prominence," said the bulletin.

'Summary of intelligence'

U.S. officials urged vigilance and caution and said that security efforts were being made.

"A lot is being done to bring additional protective measures, particularly the critical infrastructure locations around the United States," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a Friday briefing. "There is a very active ... program of coordination on this particular period of time with both public and private entities and at the federal, state and local levels."

"The warnings that have gone out recently really are a summary of intelligence, not a new warning," she said.

The report says that the next attack could rely on conventional bombs and "low-technology platforms such as truck bombs, commercial or private aircraft, small watercraft or explosives easily concealed and planted."

In addition, it said: "Sources also suggest that small-scale terrorist operations against softer targets would be easier for sleeper cells already in the U.S. to carry out and would minimize the need to communicate with central leadership, lowering the risks of detection."

A U.S. official characterized the alert as simply an effort to advise law enforcement on the current thinking of al Qaeda, and in line with public testimony last month from CIA Director George Tenet.

During October 17th testimony before the Congressional Joint Intelligence Committee, Tenet had said "the al Qaeda terrorist network has reorganized after being pushed out of Afghanistan and "intends to strike us here and overseas." (Full story)

The message that helped spur the bulletin, suspected to be from bin Laden, was broadcast Tuesday on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera TV network.

In it, the reader "praises the recent attacks against Western interests worldwide: firearms attacks against U.S. Marines in Kuwait, the fatal shooting of an American diplomat in Jordan, the bombing of a nightclub district in Bali, the attempted sinking of the French oil tanker Limburg, and the taking of hostages by Chechen guerrillas at a Moscow theater. The speaker also threatens further attacks against the United States and its allies should the United States attack Iraq."

The U.S. government is analyzing the audiotape "to determine its authenticity," but coalition sources have told CNN the voice is apparently bin Laden's and the tape was not fabricated.

The bulletin has been posted on the National Infrastructure Protection Center Web site. Located in the FBI's headquarters building in Washington, the NIPC "brings together representatives from U.S. government agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector in a partnership to protect our critical infrastructures."

On November 6, NIPC also issued a bulletin noting that al Qaeda may strike during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that began last week and continues through December 5.

"Al Qaeda and sympathetic jihadists may view Ramadan as having religious incentives and symbolic and operational advantages for conducting terrorist attacks. Nonspecific intelligence reporting also indicates al Qaeda may strike this Ramadan," the bulletin said.

It notes that the terror network "attempted to execute attacks during the Ramadan time period in the past." They include the "thwarted millennial plots in December 1999 and the aborted attack against the USS Sullivans in January 2000."

Also, the November 6 bulletin says, plots to attack U.S. ships and the U.S. Embassy in Singapore in late 2001, since disrupted, might have been planned for Ramadan.

CNN Justice Correspondent Terry Frieden, Producer Kevin Bohn, and CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.

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