Analysis: Detailed warning may prevent attack, but raises questions about next step

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2004

By Michael J. Sniffen, Associated Press writer

WASHINGTON (AP) &045; The government’s uniquely detailed warning to financial institutions raises questions about the next step for terrorists and defenders, even as it may deter this bombing plot.

There was wide praise for the detail and narrow focus of the warning Sunday to a handful of financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J. &045; even among security experts and former counterintelligence officials who had criticized previous terrorism warnings as too vague or perhaps politically motivated.

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In the long run, the plot and the warning raise such questions as: Couldn’t the al-Qaida network easily shift such a truck bomb plot to nearby targets that were not warned? How far should security against truck bombs go in closing streets? Will al-Qaida begin letting U.S. agents discover detailed false plots to divert attention from real ones, or has it already?

The short-run outlook was more optimistic.

&uot;If I worked in one of those buildings, I would feel very safe now,&uot; and not just because their security will be tightened, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. &uot;Given that it’s captured material and now made public, there’s a good chance it won’t happen. Al-Qaida has to realize the mission has been compromised.&uot;

Among the extraordinary detail that al-Qaida operatives had assembled about potential target buildings, a senior intelligence official said:

Architectural elements that might prevent collapse; a count of 14 pedestrians per minute along the sidewalk outside one building at midweek; locations of security checkpoints inside buildings and identification of days when fewer guards worked or elevators were off.

That level of detail suggests U.S. agents got hold of a surveillance report and operational plan of the kind prepared for Osama bin Laden’s personal approval before big attacks, Cannistraro said.

A similarly detailed operational plan covering targets in Singapore and prepared for top-level al-Qaida approval was captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but the ouster of al-Qaida from its normal bases there apparently aborted that plan, he said.

American targets as prominent as those disclosed Sunday represent the kind of ambitious attack al-Qaida’s leaders long for and might be unwilling to risk after a public warning, Cannistraro said.

The government’s willingness to cite specific buildings as targets &uot;is a step forward, compared to the past when they just waved a red flag and said ‘al-Qaida’s coming, al-Qaida’s coming’,&uot; said I.C. Smith, a retired FBI field office chief who spent most of his 25-year career in counterintelligence.

&uot;You are going to end up with some awfully nervous people who work in and around those buildings,&uot; Smith said, instead of citizens mystified over what to do about the vaguer earlier warnings.

But if the captured data isn’t outdated or part of a discarded plot, the warning could abort a planned truck bombing, Smith said. A counterterrorism official, requesting anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity, said al-Qaida operatives conducted the vulnerability assessments in the captured material both before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Smith said authorities need to be alert for possible al-Qaida deception. &uot;Someday they are going to send us indications they are going one way and then go another way,&uot; he said.

(Michael J. Sniffen has covered intelligence and law enforcement in Washington for 30 years.)