The Department of Homeland Security raised the U.S. terror threat level from elevated to high Sunday, warning of possible terrorist strikes more devastating than the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the move was the result of a “substantial increase” in the volume of intelligence pointing to “near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11.”
Ridge urged the public to be patient with stricter security measures “in the coming days and weeks” and to proceed with holiday plans despite the threat.
“America is a country that will not be bent by terror,” he said.
A senior administration official familiar with the decision said the volume of threats was “significantly higher” and was coming from known sources but that there was “nothing site-specific.”
Top officials discussed the matter among themselves and with President Bush for several days. The intelligence “reached the level at which we felt this is [the] right decision, to ramp up in time for [the] holidays,” the senior administration official said.
The move raised the warning level from yellow, or elevated, to orange, or high, on the Homeland Security Department’s color-coded system. Yellow is midlevel on the five-color system, and orange is the second-highest threat, lower only than red, or severe.
“Recent reporting reiterates # and this is a constant stream of reporting # that al Qaeda continues to consider using aircraft as a weapon,” Ridge said at a Washington news conference.
“And they are constantly evaluating procedures, both in the United States and elsewhere, to find gaps in our security posture that could be exploited.”
Ridge said the steps taken under an orange alert could help deter possible attacks.
“We have enhanced security at our nation’s airports and around other transportation systems and infrastructure,” he said.
“We will redeploy agents and other resources at our borders to meet the current threat. There will be more Coast Guard air and sea patrols off our shores, in our ports and escorting ships.”
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said airspace restrictions would be put in place Monday morning for small planes, primarily in the Washington area. Nationwide, the restrictions are limited to a ban on flying over major sporting events.
The restrictions are similar to those implemented during the last orange alert. The new limits will be posted on the administration’s Web site, www.faa.gov, and Brown said private pilots should check with the agency before taking off.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city would deploy more police at landmarks and financial institutions, checkpoints would be set up at bridges and tunnels, and patrols would be increased on waterways and subways.
The city has remained on orange alert since the color-coded warning system was established last year in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“No city is better prepared than New York,” Bloomberg said.
On Friday, a statement attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, claimed the terrorist network was “chasing America and its allies everywhere, even in their own home.”
A CIA analysis determined the statement, broadcast on the Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera, was “most likely” authentic.
Under an orange alert, the Department of Homeland Security urges increasing security at public events and restricting access to facilities that could be targeted. FBI field offices nationwide will operate their command posts around the clock.
State, local governments taking steps
Ridge said federal authorities have urged state and local governments to step up security, and executives in the private sector will be asked to take specific steps to protect resources “critical to our country.”
Ridge urged Americans to use “common sense” and report suspicious packages, vehicles or activities to law enforcement, and to review emergency plans.
The United States last raised the domestic terrorism threat level to orange May 20, after suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco blamed on al Qaeda. That alert lasted 10 days before the threat level was returned to yellow.
Other orange alerts were raised in 2002 around the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks and in February 2003 on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.
A state official involved in homeland security who was briefed by federal authorities told CNN that the United States had received the “highest volume” of credible threats since September 11, 2001.
The official cautioned, however, that every time the threat level has been raised in the past, federal officials have made such a “highest volume” claim.
Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that Americans overseas are at greatest risk.
“But al Qaeda would like nothing better than to carry out an attack here on the American homeland to prove that they’re still relevant, raise their morale and convince their financiers they’re still worth supporting,” Bayh said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
The State Department said Wednesday it had authorized nonessential diplomats and families of U.S. officials to leave Saudi Arabia because of security concerns, and urged Americans to defer travel to the kingdom.