Anatomy Of The Threat

The headline on the FBI document was stark and declarative: Al-Qaeda set to attack. The dossier, a classified summary of CIA intelligence on Al Qaeda as of the end of January, put together for distribution to FBI agents all over the world, had some frightening predictions. It warned of terrorist "spectaculars" timed to occur between the end of the hajj, the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in mid-February, and the beginning of the outbreak of war with Iraq. "We have information that as of early this year Al Qaeda is organizing a 'new' type of attack that Al Qaeda leadership is convinced will surprise the United States," read the document, which was obtained by NEWSWEEK.

But the intelligence report did not say what kind of attack, aside from speculating that it might involve a "radiological dispersal device," a so-called dirty bomb, or perhaps chemical and biological weapons. Nor did it provide any useful guidance about the targets or the exact timing or the precise method of attack. The briefing suggested that Al Qaeda is aiming at the "Continental United States" and "the Persian Gulf," but continued, "we cannot rule out other locations..." The report was alarming, even apocalyptic, but also maddeningly vague.

"Intelligence analysis," says a top law- enforcement official, "is an art, not a science." Intelligence reports tend to be informed hunches, based on scraps of coded conversation picked up by electronic intercepts, tips from foreign intelligence services or other "human intelligence" of varying degrees of credibility. Often, the reports are hedged or so general as to be useless, or occasionally just plain wrong. "At the end of the day, you don't know whether you're looking at a mouse running across a field," says an administration official, "or a rhino charging right at you." Filtered to the public through press leaks and the pronouncements of anxious politicians or defensive bureaucrats, intelligence reports can create more hysteria than enlightenment.

Such was certainly the case last week. Maybe it was the Orange alert warning (danger: high) flashing on the cable news shows or the photos of antiaircraft --missiles stationed near the Washington Monument or the creepy new Osama bin Laden tape, full of mystical portent, or all the slightly pathetic talk of using duct tape and plastic to ward off nerve gas or the bubonic plague. But many Americans, especially those living in New York and Washington, had nightmares of choking to death on poisonous vapors in their own homes. The fears, federal officials now awkwardly admit, were disproportionate and unnecessary. The decision to go to Code Orange, it turns out, was based partly on bogus information sold by a couple of unreliable informants. Indeed, NEWSWEEK has learned, there is some discussion among high-level intelligence officials of reducing the threat level a notch, to Code Yellow.

Not that there isn't still plenty to worry about. Al Qaeda probably is trying to mount a "spectacular" in the United States, and soon. But it is not certain that the terrorists can pull off such an operation or that it will outdo or match the September 11 outrages. At the same time, it is unclear whether the many intelligence services all over the world that are searching for Qaeda plotters can successfully work together to stop them. Can the terrorists spread anthrax over the White House grounds or dirty-bomb the Capitol? U.S. spy agencies and law enforcement don't really know.

The Feds are caught in a difficult spot. They need to keep the public alert and give citizens useful advice for handling emergencies, but without at the same time causing undue alarm. They also wish to cover themselves if something goes wrong. Last week's mood swings offer a case study of how this difficult balancing act can spin out of control. NEWSWEEK reporters were able to piece together how hints and assumptions and the need to be seen "doing something" snowballed into a full-fledged panic attack.

The Code Orange warning was based on a pastiche of evidence, none of it definitive. The first clue turned up in a cave in Afghanistan many months ago, according to a knowledgeable official who has been extensively briefed on intelligence findings. American soldiers looking for Qaeda fighters found some documents suggesting that the terrorists had many of the elements it needed to build a radiological device, or dirty bomb. But they were missing an essential piece, possibly a mechanism of some kind for dispersing the radioactive particles. This winter, intercepts by the National Security Agency began picking up increased chatter, suggesting that top Qaeda planners were giving orders to operational chiefs to prepare some kind of unspecified attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States. Then in late January came a seemingly critical piece of human intelligence: the internal security service of an unnamed country said that a source had reported that the missing piece was now in place for a dirty-bomb attack--though the informant offered no date or place.

Intelligence analysts like to connect the dots. At about the same time one human source was reporting that Al Qaeda had solved the dirty-bomb puzzle, another informant was telling U.S. intelligence that Al Qaeda was planning to attack a Jewish-owned hotel in Virginia Beach, about two hours from Washington. Meanwhile the chatter picked up by electronic intercepts included references to "unfinished business." Al Qaeda has a history of going back to destroy targets it missed or only grazed the first time around, like the World Trade Center, first bombed in 1993, and an American warship in the Middle East (the October 1999 bombing of the USS Cole came on the second or third try). The "unfinished business," analysts assume, is a reference to Washington, D.C. The CIA and FBI believe that United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field on 9-11 after a heroic passenger revolt, was headed for either the White House or the Capitol (Qaeda intercepts sometimes include cryptic mentions of "the White Palace").

Was Al Qaeda closing in on a spectacular? In early February, the chatter seemed to go silent, sometimes a sign of imminent attack. Intelligence officials recalled that the documents found in Afghan caves had raised questions about "wind patterns" in Washington. Meanwhile, there were signs that Al Qaeda was making progress in developing chemical weapons. Traces of ricin, an agricultural byproduct that can be made into poison, were found in raids on Qaeda cells in Britain and Spain. Another raid on a London mosque favored by radical Islamicists turned up chemical-weapons protective gear.

Taken together, these and other ominous bits and pieces of "intel" were enough to move the Bush administration to raise the alert level from Yellow (Elevated) to Orange (High). President George W. Bush signed off on the decision. According to White House aides, Bush is an avid consumer of spycraft: he always begins his 8 a.m. intelligence briefing by asking about the latest on "the threat." He closely tracks developments on specific intercepts and keeps in his desk drawer a list of top Qaeda operatives, with the names of those captured and dead crossed off (at this stage roughly 10 of the top 30). Bush knew that the higher alert could ignite smoldering fears. But the White House was caught off guard when the new Department of Home Security inadvertently fanned the flames.

For some time, the department has been planning to launch a "citizens education" program to prepare people for the possibility of a terrorist attack. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge is expected to roll out this "Ready Plan" on Wednesday. But last Monday, officials at DHS got a little ahead of themselves. The speaker at a briefing for reporters was an official from FEMA, the small federal agency, now part of DHS, that handles natural disasters like floods and hurricanes as well as defense against nuclear war. The FEMA official told reporters that citizens might be prudent to buy rolls of duct tape and a supply of plastic sheeting to seal off rooms and doors, in the event of an attack by chemical weapons. Reporters suddenly seized on this recommendation and began badgering the official with questions. The official was only telling reporters information that was already on the DHS Web site. But it began to occur to some DHS officials, as they watched the increasingly agitated reporters grilling the beleaguered official, that a public-relations disaster was in the making.

By the next day, stores in New York and Washington were running out of bottled water and duct tape. On Wednesday, Osama bin Laden surfaced on the airwaves, urging Islamic true believers to strike back against the "Jews and Crusaders" (Qaeda-speak for Christians). Was this some kind of signal? Past bin Laden tapes have been followed fairly quickly by attacks. Alarm swept across Capitol Hill, where black-suited police officers appeared, toting semiautomatic weapons. At a closed-door session with lawmakers on Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist repeated the conventional wisdom that the Capitol could be a target and that senators "have a responsibility to themselves and to their staffs to be prepared." Anxious solons began asking if they should send their spouses and children out of town. When one senator returned to his office and relayed to his staff the gist of Frist's remarks, a new rumor was born: Frist had told senators that there will be an at-tack on the Capitol. (To calm fears, Frist held a conference call the next morning with Senate spouses.)

By the time the hysteria was peaking, intelligence officials were already second-guessing their dire warnings. The informant who warned of the attack on the Virginia Beach hotel, knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK, last week flunked a lie-detector test. And the tip from the informant that Al Qaeda had perfected a dirty bomb "didn't pan out," said another well-placed source, who added, "This is what happens when you pay for intelligence." Publicly, a somewhat abashed Secretary Ridge tried to calm fears by saying that his department really hadn't meant to tell citizens to start sealing their doors and windows. Administration aides blamed the press for hype and sensationalism.

Top intelligence officials are considering crawling back from the ledge and returning to Code Yellow. They are concerned about the drain on resources from constant alerts. Last week top administration officials expressed concern that the Coast Guard's decision to send 10 top-of-the-line cutters to protect the Navy in the Persian Gulf had dangerously thinned protection of the American coastline. (Commandant Thomas Collins says the Coast Guard is meeting its commitments for the time being, but adds that "sustainability is clearly an issue.") Yet other dangers remain. Intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda, while weakened in Europe, has increasingly found recruits in North Africa who are less skilled, perhaps, but even more violently suicidal. Last week Britain dispatched troops and tanks to Heathrow Airport outside London. Intelligence had picked up a credible threat that terrorists were planning to shoot down a commercial airliner with a surface-to-air missile. Last fall Qaeda operators tried and failed to shoot down an Israeli charter jet in Kenya. Officials say they would have a very hard time defending against such a missile attack in the United States. They are also anxious about possible poisoning of metropolitan water supplies, toxic-gas attacks on office buildings or hotels or public transport, and suicide bombings in shopping malls.

For months the CIA has been worrying that Saddam will join forces with Al Qaeda in a grotesque suicide pact to inflict as much pain as possible before perishing himself. Secretary of State Colin Powell seized on bin Laden's broadcast as proof that bin Laden had taken up Saddam's cause. The Qaeda leader did urge good Muslims to resist a "Crusaders' " attack on Iraq, though he seemed to scorn Saddam as a socialist infidel. In recent weeks a small group of CIA analysts have been meeting as part of a "predictive analysis project" to divine if and when Saddam might strike the United States with a weapon of mass destruction. The theory is that Saddam might slip one of his chem-bio or radiological weapons to Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group to create a massive diversion, a crisis in the American homeland that could stall an attack on Iraq. Though there's no hard evidence that Saddam is contemplating this "Iraqi deflection strategy," the agency has calculated the odds.

In an intelligence document obtained by NEWSWEEK, a group of CIA analysts makes a prediction: "By the end of the project, the analysts judged that under the stipulated scenario there is a 59 percent probability that an attack on the U.S. homeland involving WMD would occur before 31 March 2003, a 35 percent probability an attack would occur at a later date, and a 6 percent probability an attack would never occur." It all seems so precise and frightening: a better than 90 percent chance that Saddam will succeed in hitting America with a weapon spewing radiation, germs or poison. But it is important to remember that the odds are determined by averaging a bunch of guesses, informed perhaps, but from experts whose careers can only be ruined by underestimating the threat.

Ramzi bin al-Shibh
FIXER
Suspected '20th hijacker,' unable to get U.S. visa, fled to Pakistan after 9-11. Now in U.S. custody, talking to investigators.

Abu Zubaydah
TRAINING CHIEF
Ran Al Qaeda's network of Afghan camps. Was captured, badly wounded, during a police sweep in Pakistan last March.

Mounir El Motassadeq
ASSOCIATE
Alleged helper of 9-11 plotters, now on trial in Germany. His lawyers want CIA reports on bin al-Shibh.

Zacarias Moussaoui
STUDENT PILOT
Got money from bin al-Shibh, picked up at a Minnesota flight school shortly before 9-11. Insists he had no ties to the terror plot.

Mohamed Zammar
RECRUITER
Said to have enlisted several of the 9-11 hijackers in Germany. Captured in Morocco, now under questioning in Syria.

Osama bin Laden
LEADER
Believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas. Last week an audiotape attributed to him urged Muslims to support Iraqis.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri
BIN LADEN'S NO. 2
Surgeon, founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with Al Qaeda. Whereabouts unknown, believed to remain in contact with bin Laden.

Said Bahaji
FACILITATOR
Computer specialist, signed the lease for Mohamed Atta's apartment. Shaved beard, flew to Pakistan and vanished.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
CHIEF OF OPS
Master planner of foiled 1995 attacks on U.S. airliners and 9-11 hijackings. One of the world's most-wanted men.

Tawfiq bin Atash
GO-BETWEEN
Bin Laden's 'personal intermediary' with operatives who carried out the bombing of the USS Cole. Attended 'terrorist summit' with 9-11 hijackers in early 2000. Whereabouts unknown.

Join the Discussion