WASHINGTON - American authorities have spotted a recent upsurge in possible terrorist threats and are warning law enforcement officials to be alert to the prospect of al-Qaida attacks in the United States and abroad as early as within several weeks, officials said yesterday.
The CIA is concerned that al-Qaida "plans to launch major attacks" against Americans in the United States and in the Middle East "as early as mid-February 2003," law enforcement and intelligence officials were warned by a confidential advisory circulated this week.
Based on what was deemed "reliable information" from recent intelligence reports, officials said they were concerned that a wave of terrorist attacks could be timed to coincide with the end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and the approach of a possible war with Iraq.
The rising concern also reflects new assessments of al-Qaida's interest and ability to produce radiological or chemical weapons. In particular, investigators have expressed concern about al-Qaida's ability to strike with a "dirty bomb," a device that would use conventional explosives to spew radioactive material into the air.
In a recent re-evaluation, intelligence analysts have concluded that al-Qaida may be closer to developing a dirty bomb than was thought after the arrest of Jose Padilla, an American member of al-Qaida, who the authorities said plotted to build such a device.
Padilla, who was arrested as he arrived in Chicago last May on a flight from Pakistan, was believed to have lacked the technical knowledge or organizational skills to have organized a credible plot. After his arrest, counterterrorism officials seemed to play down the threat.
But since then, interviews with detainees like Abu Zubaydah, one of al-Qaida's chief recruiters, and a fuller examination of materials seized in Afghanistan have led the authorities to suspect that a dirty bomb might well be within al-Qaida's grasp.
It was Zubaydah who initially confirmed the existence of a dirty bomb plot and acknowledged that someone had been recruited to oversee the project, in which radioactive material would have been wrapped around a conventional explosive and detonated in the United States.
Concern about terrorists' potential use of ricin has also been growing since small amounts of the deadly poison were found in Britain in an apartment rented by four Algerians.