John Ashcroft was in familiar form, part Sgt. Joe Friday, part Prophet of Doom. Standing by giant mug shots of seven terrorist suspects, the U.S. attorney general warned, "Be on the lookout... for each of these seven individuals. They all pose a clear and present danger to America. They all should be considered armed and dangerous." America, it seemed, faced a frightening summer. As exhibit A, Ashcroft cited a statement from an "Al Qaeda spokesman" that plans for an attack "to hit the United States hard" were "90 percent complete."

But things are not always as they seem in the wilderness of mirrors known as the war on terror. The facts are a little less stark, the motives for airing them more mixed than Ashcroft's grim warnings would suggest. Once again it appears that politics and national security are bedfellows in post-9/11 America. That is not to say that Bush administration officials are crying wolf. It's just that they know less--and want more--than the attorney general appeared to be saying.

The "90 percent" warning from an "Al Qaeda spokesman" so dramatically cited by Ashcroft was actually an e-mail to a London-based Arabic newspaper from an organization called the Brigade of Abu Hafs Al Masri. The e-mail first publicly surfaced two months ago, after the Madrid train bombings. Intelligence analysts have been skeptical about the so-called brigade, which may be loosely linked to Al Qaeda, or just some creepy terror wanna-bes. Over the past year, the brigade has claimed credit for the bombings of two synagogues and the British Consulate in Istanbul. But it also boasted that it caused the New York City blackout, which was the result of mechanical breakdown and computer malfunction.

And the seven suspects ominously displayed by Ashcroft? They are disparate and somewhat shadowy individuals who have some ties to America but are probably scattered around the world. Most of them have been on the well-publicized FBI most-wanted lists for months, if not years. (With one intriguing exception: Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who is apparently a second "American Taliban," like John Walker Lindh a California Lost Boy who wound up in Afghanistan allegedly working for Al Qaeda.)

The White House, NEWSWEEK has learned, played a role in the decision to go public with the warning. According to a White House official, President Bush signed off on the press conference after meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Ashcroft. With the president's poll numbers dropping, the Bush administration is surely eager to divert attention from Iraq to the terrorist threat.

But just because the administration may have been playing politics to shift attention from its own failings does not mean the terror warnings are unwarranted. FBI and CIA intelligence analysts are convinced that Al Qaeda or its offshoots are determined to strike in America before the November elections. "Chatter" intercepted by U.S. intelligence suggests that the terrorists will try to hit symbolic or politically important targets, like the Democratic and Republican political conventions in Boston and New York this summer or June's G8 economic summit in Sea Island, Georgia.

For the time being, though, the FBI does not even know if the seven suspected terrorists are in the United States. The scariest-sounding is Adnan El Shukrijumah, a Saudi also known as "Jafar the Pilot." The slight, asthmatic 28-year-old son of an Islamic cleric, Shukrijumah grew up in the United States and speaks fluent English. He received flight training and was regarded as a favorite of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's operations chief who is now in an undisclosed American prison. Some officials feared that Jafar the Pilot had the potential to become another Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.

Frantically trying to find Shukrijumah after 9/11, the FBI developed a chilling timeline from credit-card and bank receipts showing that the suspected Qaeda operative had been traveling across the United States visiting landmarks, presumably casing them as targets. Shukrijumah vanished by late 2002 and has apparently shed his identity.

The most immediately threatening suspect may actually be the one woman--Aafia Siddiqui. The 32-year-old Pakistani native is a microbiologist trained at MIT. As late as the summer of 2002, she was still living in Boston. She has since vanished. The American intelligence community has been eager to find her ever since Mohammed was captured in March 2003 and identified Siddiqui as a "facilitator" for future attacks. FBI agents found evidence that Siddiqui had rented a post-office box to help another Qaeda operative. More chilling, in 2002 a bank card assigned to Siddiqui and her husband was used to purchase night-vision goggles, body armor and other high-tech military equipment.

After he was captured at a Pakistani safe house and taken into CIA custody, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed--"KSM" to his interrogators--revealed that tightened security post-9/11 had forced Al Qaeda to rethink its strategy for penetrating the United States. No longer could young Saudi men with tourist visas fly into Miami or Newark and just disappear. Al Qaeda needed operatives who had American passports. The terrorists began trying to recruit native-born Americans, looking for those living abroad who had converted to Islam or black Muslims inside the United States.

One such American, KSM told his interrogators, was a young convert and alleged Qaeda translator by the given name of Adam Yahiye Gadahn. KSM wanted Gadahn, who had taken the name Abu Suhayb Al-Amriki, to join a plot to blow up fuel stations outside Baltimore, according to a May 2003 classified FBI document obtained by NEWSWEEK. The American, whose Muslim wife was expecting a child, was not eager to participate in "martyrdom" (suicide) operations, reported KSM, but he was willing to help out. KSM said he had last seen Suhayb in Karachi in October 2002.

Last week everyone, including his parents in California, was wondering where he'd gone. "I hope it's a mistake... He's always been very peaceful," said his father, Philip Gadahn.

An Afghan fighter named Hamdullah told NEWSWEEK that he had run into the American before Kandahar fell in the winter of 2001. Hamdullah thought that Gadahn had been "in the air force." Just what air force was not clear. The kind of air force that flies into buildings?