New intelligence suggests that Al Qaeda was planning to attack London, not U.S. financial centers, in the run-up to the presidential election. A Kerry adviser blames politics for the timing of the government's summer alert
Nov. 17 - The latest analysis of evidence that led to last summer’s Code Orange alert suggests that Al Qaeda operatives were plotting a “big bomb” attack against a major landmark in Britain—but had no active plans for strikes in the United States, U.S. intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK.
The reassessment of Al Qaeda plans is the latest indication that much of the Bush administration’s repeatedly voiced concerns about a pre-election attack inside the United States was based in part on an early misreading of crucial intelligence seized months ago in Pakistan.
The new view is that there was indeed an active Al Qaeda plot underway earlier this year—one that involved coded communications between high-level operatives in Pakistan and a British cell headed by a longtime associate of September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
The plot was aimed at setting off a large bomb at a prestigious economic or political target inside the United Kingdom—in effect to make a political statement against the British government. Among the targets considered in detail by the plotters, sources say, was London’s Heathrow Airport, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
But little, if any, any evidence has turned up suggesting that the plotters had taken any steps to attack U.S. financial targets as Bush administration officials had initially suggested. The failure to find any such evidence was a key reason the Department of Homeland Security last week relaxed the terror alert and downgraded the threat level from Orange (elevated) to Yellow (high) for financial buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Officials also said that another reason for downgrading the alert was that security at the buildings had been enhanced.
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Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge first announced the financial-buildings alert on Sunday, Aug. 1, just three days after Sen. John Kerry gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention in Boston. Ridge’s references to what he called “very specific” and “alarming” intelligence about Al Qaeda surveillance of such buildings as the World Bank in Washington and the New York Stock Exchange set off a new wave of fears about a possibly imminent terrorist attack and, in the view of some, had the effect of substantially suppressing Kerry’s “bounce” in the polls.
The disclosure days later that most of the intelligence that Al Qaeda had been “casing” the buildings was several years old prompted some Democrats at the time to express concerns that the Bush administration was hyping terror threats to promote the president’s campaign themes and frighten American voters. The Orange alert "was one of the most crimping factors that took away from whatever bounce from the convention there was," says Rand Beers, Kerry's chief foreign-policy adviser during the campaign and a former top counterterrorism aide in the Bush White House. In an interview this week, Beers also noted that there were legitimate "operational" reasons not to go public with the terror alert when Ridge announced it—namely, so that ongoing investigations into the intelligence about the financial-building surveillance could proceed in Pakistan and Great Britain. In light of that, Beers adds: "There is a plausible case to be made for political gain being the primary motivation" behind the timing of the announcement.
But Ridge, who in his original Aug. 1 announcement said the new intelligence about the financial buildings was "result of the president's leadership in the war against terror," strongly denied the allegation, saying repeatedly, "we don't do politics" in Homeland Security. Moreover, administration officials insisted throughout the campaign that the alert regarding the financial buildings was justified by the extraordinary discovery of a valuable computer archive in the possession of Mohammed Noor Khan, a suspected Al Qaeda communications operative who was arrested by Pakistani authorities. Khan is believed by Britain's M.I.-5 counterintelligence agency to have close connections at the highest levels of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself.
In the computer's hard drive, U.S. and Pakistani investigators discovered elaborate surveillance reports—including, NEWSWEEK has learned, original video footage—of prominent U.S. financial buildings. These included the New York Stock Exchange, Prudential Insurance headquarters in Newark, N.J., and World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings only blocks from the White House in Washington.
Initial analysis by American investigators of the computer data suggested that most of the information in the surveillance reports was collected when suspected Al Qaeda operatives visited the U.S.—on the apparent instructions of leading Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—some time before the 9/11 attacks.
Intelligence officials said at the time that some of the surveillance reports on the U.S. financial targets may have been updated as recently as last winter and may have been accessed, or viewed by at least one computer user, as recently as last June or July. These hints that Al Qaeda operatives may have revisited the surveillance reports recently—coupled with intelligence from informants indicating Al Qaeda wanted to commit some kind of spectacular attack in the U.S. before the November election—were cited by administration officials to justify their decision to announce the public alert regarding a possible current threat to the financial buildings.
But subsequent analysis of the Pakistani computer evidence—and other evidence gathered in related raids in Britain—now puts much of that intelligence in a different light. While follow-up investigations have produced little corroboration for the idea that operatives in the United States were still working on an attack against the financial targets, the evidence gathered in Pakistan and Britain has shed important new clues to Al Qaeda’s intentions.
Evidence gathered in the two countries included messages between suspects in Pakistan and Britain in an elaborate and initially opaque makeshift code. One break in the case came when a captured suspect agreed to help investigators decipher that code. They concluded that suspects in Britain—including a key figure who is believed to have been previously involved in the surveillance of the U.S. financial buildings—were working with a computer and communications expert in Pakistan on an active plot against targets in the London area.
According to a source familiar with evidence in the investigation, the alleged plotters' plans for possible action in Britain were very elaborate and flexible. Some of the alternative targets—including Heathrow Airport and Westminster Abbey—were considered in detail by the plotters, though the evidence suggests they never settled on their final objective.
After the arrest of Khan in Pakistan, British authorities rounded up several of his suspected contacts and cohorts, including the cell's leader, Dhiren Barot, a stocky self-described former instructor in jihadi camps in Afghanistan who used the alias Esa al-Hindi, and charged them with terrorist offenses—including one which related to possible use of weapons of mass destruction. Barot is referred to in last summer’s report by the September 11 commission as an operative who was dispatched by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to New York to carry out surveillance on possible targets in this country. Britain's case against him and his alleged co-conspirators is still in pretrial stages, but lawyers for the suspects have proclaimed their innocence. British authorities have declined comment.
Some U.S. law-enforcement officers based in London, NEWSWEEK has learned, have become extremely concerned about evidence regarding possible active Al Qaeda plots to attack targets in Britain. According to a U.S. government official, fears of terror attacks have prompted FBI agents based in the U.S. Embassy in London to avoid traveling on London's popular underground railway (or tube) system, which is used daily by millions of commuters. While embassy-based officers of the U.S. Secret Service, Immigration and Customs bureaus and the CIA still are believed to use the underground to go about their business, FBI agents have been known to turn up late to crosstown meetings because they insist on using taxis in London's traffic-choked business center.
The indications that plotters linked to a big election-season terror alert actually were actively planning to attack Britain rather than the United States is at least the second revelation which seems to partly undermine administration assertions that the U.S. homeland faced a heightened risk of attack during the presidential campaign.
Shortly before the election, administration officials quietly acknowledged that at least one informant who last winter had provided lurid intelligence about a possible pre-election attack in the U.S. had apparently fabricated his allegations. Yet given the importance that waging the war on terror had assumed during the presidential campaign, administration officials apparently were reluctant to announce a lowering of the Orange-alert threat until after the election. "They would have been a laughing stock if they lowered it before the election," says Beers. Still, many U.S. officials think the threat of possible Al Qaeda attacks remains relatively high—at least until after George W. Bush's second Inauguration in January.