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United States goes on orange alert

Officials: 'Chatter' hints U.S. attack might be planned

Officials: 'Chatter' hints U.S. attack might be planned

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Terror level threat is based on new intelligence.
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The threat status is changed to 'high' amid fears of a plot against U.S. targets.
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U.S. intelligence officials say they believe al Qaeda members are in Iran.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- -- The United States raised the nation's terror threat level Tuesday, saying the U.S. intelligence community believes al Qaeda has entered an "operational period worldwide" and might attack within the United States.

The threat level was raised to orange, or "high" -- the nation's second-highest level of warning.

U.S. defense officials said the information about a potential attack inside the United States came from intercepted communications of suspected terrorists. One source emphasized that the intercepts indicated the possibility of multiple attacks.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said there is no "credible, specific information" about targets or method of attack, but he noted that recent terrorist attacks overseas have included "small arms-equipped assault teams, large vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers.

"Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted," Ridge said in a statement.

"The U.S. intelligence community believes that al Qaeda has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include attacks in the United States."

Although al Qaeda and its sympathizers are the "principal threat," Ridge said, "threats may also emanate from other anti-U.S. terrorist groups, regional extremist organizations, and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals not connected to existing terrorist organizations or state sponsors of terrorism."

The decision to boost the threat alert was made during a meeting of the president's Homeland Security Council at the White House. Officials said President Bush quickly signed off on it after being briefed.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would reimpose certain restrictions, such as bans on flying over stadiums or within 15 nautical miles of the Washington Monument, that have been put in place several times since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Full story)

In New York City, which has been at high alert since the system was established after September 11, the police commissioner said Tuesday that he was stepping up uniformed police patrols, though the city has received no specific threats. (Full story)

San Francisco's Police Department planned to double-check "critical locations" during each shift and closely monitor public events with crowds, and in Los Angeles, California, police officials said they would activate a local response plan within 24 hours.

The State Department also closed its embassy and two consulates in Saudi Arabia, and the FBI warned law enforcement agencies nationwide that the bombings last week in Saudi Arabia and Morocco "may be a prelude to another attack in the United States."

CNN has also learned that CIA Director George Tenet was in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, but officials would not elaborate on the purpose of the trip or with whom he met.

Ridge said he had contacted the state governors through their homeland security advisers and notified state and local authorities about the increased threat, asking them "to review their own current security measures and deploy additional measures."

The raising of the threat level comes as the nation prepares to celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, when war veterans are remembered and large public gatherings are held.

'Reasonably spooky stuff'

On Capitol Hill, Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson said intelligence indicates "terrorists continue to plan attacks against targets in the United States, and for this reason, the alert level has been raised.

"There is increased specificity in what we hear, but not necessarily in terms of the target," Hutchinson said.

It marks the fourth time the level has been raised to orange. The last time was March 17, the day President Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum to step down as Iraq leader. About a month later, it was lowered to yellow, or "elevated." No terrorist attacks occurred inside the United States. (U.S. threat level system)

Senior U.S. officials said the chatter suggests a significant attack inside the United States might be in the works.

It is "reasonably spooky stuff," a knowledgeable U.S. official said.

With the chatter swirling, the FBI notified state and local law enforcement agencies Tuesday that the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco might have been preparation for a larger attack in the United States.

"While these attacks produced a significant loss of life and destruction, recent intelligence suggests that the attacks may be a prelude to another attack in the United States," the message said.

Simultaneous suicide bombings May 12 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed 25 people and nine attackers. Bombings Friday in Casablanca, Morocco, killed 29 people, plus 12 suicide bombers.

Global reactions

The worries of new possible attacks prompted a series of reactions around the world.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh issued a warning Tuesday, saying, in part, "The embassy continues to receive credible information that further terrorist attacks are being planned against unspecified targets in Saudi Arabia. (Full story)

"In response to information that some strikes may be imminent," the embassy in Riyadh and the consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran will be closed Wednesday, possibly until Sunday, the embassy said.

Britain also announced it was closing its embassy in Riyadh on Wednesday and would reopen it Saturday.

Meanwhile, Saudi security officials confirmed Tuesday that three suspected al Qaeda militants have been arrested in Jeddah.

The three suspects were on the Saudi most-wanted list and are believed to be linked to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the officials said.

They are not believed to have been involved in the Riyadh bombings, but officials said they believe the suspects have information about those attacks.

Iran again denied Tuesday that it is harboring suspected al Qaeda operatives, turning aside U.S. assertions that members of the terror group are using the country as a base for attacks. (Full story)

The U.S. government has been in communication with Iran about the presence of al Qaeda members, making it clear to the nation's Islamic leadership that it must take more steps against terrorism, U.S. officials said Monday.

However, on the Web site of Iran's state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi rebutted remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that al Qaeda leaders are in Iran, adding that his nation has no links to the "fundamentalist and violent" network.

-- CNN senior White House correspondent John King, national security correspondent David Ensor and Justice producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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