WASHINGTON — More financial institutions than previously disclosed may be at risk of attack, and an al-Qaida operative has told British intelligence that the group’s target date is early September, intelligence sources said yesterday.
The operative, described as “credible” by British intelligence, told his debriefers that the attack would take place “60 days before the presidential election” on Nov. 2, according to a former senior National Security Council official. On Sept. 2 President George W. Bush is expected to address the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.
Counterterrorism officials are analyzing data from a computer seized in Pakistan last month to see if financial institutions in addition to the five disclosed Sunday are at risk of attack, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The former senior National Security Council official said he was told by British intelligence that they are interrogating an al-Qaida operative who confirmed that financial institutions are being targeted and that an attack was planned for September.
And a U.S. official familiar with the ongoing analysis of the computer said, “There are references to other things [buildings]” in the al-Qaida computer’s data, including a picture of the Bank of America building in San Francisco. “There is mention of other places.”
The laptop computer was seized on July 25 following the arrest after a 12-hour gun battle of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is wanted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Pakistan’s information minister confirmed to The Associated Press yesterday that e-mail data retrieved from Ghailani’s computer indicated planned attacks in both the United States and Britain. A British official said that the threat to the U.K. was not specific.
The CIA had tipped off Pakistani authorities on the location of Ghailani’s safehouse in Gujrat, Pakistan, after tracking down an al-Qaida computer engineer, who had e-mailed the data to Ghailani, 12 days earlier, U.S. officials said.
The computer engineer, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, ran a secret al-Qaida communications system and his arrest was described by a senior U.S. official as the “most significant” of a series of events that led to Sunday’s raising of the threat level to “high” for five financial institutions. They are the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup building in New York, as well as the Prudential financial building in Newark and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings in the nation’s capital.
The former NSC official, who asked to not be further identified, said that the al-Qaida operative in British custody, while confirming that financial institutions were at risk, did not know which financial institutions were being targeted. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The U.S. official who disclosed yesterday that CIA and other counterterrorism officials are studying the vast amounts of computer data stored in the laptop said that the information on other institutions “does not reach the level of detail” retrieved on the five named Sunday.
Nevertheless, he said, analysts “are continuing to exploit the data to see if anything boils to the surface.”