WASHINGTON (CNN) # Air France flights to and from Los Angeles, California, were canceled Wednesday amid fears of a possible terrorist strike.
Air France flights 68 and 70 from Paris to Los Angeles and Thursday’s flight 68 to Los Angeles, were grounded. The decision came after consultation between U.S. and French authorities, a senior U.S. official said.
As a result, three other Los Angeles flights were canceled because the planes will remain in Paris and cannot continue to their final destinations. Air France also cancelled a flight to Cincinnati, Ohio, because of issues not related to security concerns, according to an airline representative.
All the flights involve two Boeing 747 jumbo jets being kept in Paris. The cancellations affect a total of about 2,000 passengers, Ziya Akbas, the Air France station manager at Los Angeles International Airport, said.
News of the cancellations came as U.S. officials said a high volume of good-quality intelligence indicated that the al Qaeda terrorist network wants to attack the United States during the Christmas holiday.
The move was related to information that prompted this week’s heightened terror alert in the United States, a senior Bush administration official said.
French National Defense Secretary Jean-Claude Mallet said: “We didn’t want to take any risks at all for the security of passengers, for the security of flights, for the security of the United States and the security of France.” (Full story)
A Pentagon official told CNN on Wednesday the possibility of an attack using an airliner # either one coming to the United States from Mexico or an Air France plane # remains a major concern.
A government source said passengers traveling on Air France flights into at least one airport in the United States will be subjected to greater pre-departure screening.
In addition, the source said those booked onto flights departing Mexico bound for several airports in the United States also will be subjected to more screening. The source refused to identify the U.S. airports involved.
The intelligence suggests major cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles; New York; and Washington, are possible targets, although the names of small, rural communities have come up as well, the officials said.
The concerns are based on intercepted communications from people described as “terrorist supporters.” The warnings prompted federal officials Sunday to raise the nation’s color-coded threat level to orange, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack.
Military teams with expertise in chemical, biological and nuclear attacks are on alert for a possible terrorist attack and may already be deployed to key locations as threat information develops, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
The official would not specify if the teams had already been sent to potential target areas, but confirmed their locations are under review given the intelligence that led the government to heighten the terror threat level.
A major concern is that the teams be available for quick response if there were a successful terrorist attack involving a so-called dirty bomb or other radiological device. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive such as dynamite that has been packaged with radioactive material, which scatters when the bomb goes off.
U.S. military jets randomly patrolled major cities, missile batteries were placed in the Washington area, patrols were stepped up at seaports, and landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, were under guard.
National Guard units were mobilized to provide high-visibility security at airports in New York City and elsewhere for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.
Flight crews questioned
At Los Angeles International Airport, police stopped curbside drop-offs of passengers from private vehicles, limiting access to buses and cabs. And security officials said that some flight crews from international airlines were being questioned for up to an hour before being allowed to continue on their way.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has warned that intelligence indicates terrorists are hoping to pull off an attack as big # or bigger # than the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The biggest worry was the possibility that al Qaeda could hijack a plane from another country and use it as a weapon.
Officials have said some information that led to the heightened threat level came from intercepted “chatter.” On Wednesday, two government sources told CNN that some information came from at least one informant for U.S. intelligence.
A source familiar with the latest intelligence cautioned there was a lot of confusion about the information # what was new, what was old, what was recycled # and called it “mass chaos” trying to unravel the threat data.
Some senior officials have raised the possibility that terrorist plots could involve the use of weapons of mass destruction. It’s not known whether al Qaeda or related terror groups have the capacity to use WMD but, one top U.S. official said, “We know they are trying real hard to get it.”
A miliary guard and a Port Authority police officer patrol LaGuardia Airport’s main terminal on Wednesday in New York.
U.S. airlines have increased the number of air marshals on domestic and international flights, but several officials said airlines overseas were not required to meet the same security standards as those in the United States.
One federal law enforcement official in Washington indicated the greatest level of concern appeared to be “in L.A. and LAX,” referring to the city’s international airport. He said officials were drafting a plan for actions to be taken for that area in the event a terrorist act occurred.
The concerns extended to U.S. interests overseas.
A senior State Department official told CNN the U.S. government had received intelligence that al Qaeda was planning attacks in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kenya. Monday, U.S. military officials said al Qaeda terrorists may be in the final stages of planning an attack in Saudi Arabia.
The State Department has authorized nonessential diplomats and families of U.S. officials to leave Saudi Arabia because of ongoing security concerns.
AF 68 Paris (dpts 135p local) to LAX (arvs 405p PT)
AF 69 LAX (dpts 7p PT) to Paris (arvs 240p local, 12/25)
AF 70 Paris (dpts 7p local) to LAX (arvs 930p PT)
AF 71 LAX (dpts 12:15a) to Tahiti
AF68 Paris (dpts 135p local) to LAX (arvs 405p PT)
AF 69 LAX (dpts 7pm PT) to Paris (arvs 240p local, 12/26)
Source: Air France