U.S. raises terror threat level to orange

By SHAUN WATERMAN  |  May 20, 2003 at 5:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- The United States Tuesday raised the nation's terror threat warning level to "orange," or "high," following a warning that the Islamic terror group al-Qaida might try to strike "soft targets" in the United States.

"The U.S. intelligence community believes that al-Qaida has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include attacks in the United States," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in a statement.

"While there is not credible, specific information with respect to targets or method of attack," the statement continued, "the use of tactics similar to those seen in recent terrorist attacks overseas include small arm equipped assault teams, large vehicle-borne explosive devices, and suicide bombers."

He added that recent attacks underlined the group's desire to strike so-called soft -– or hard to defend -– targets.

As is the case in the past when we've raised the level, there's been an increased specificity to the threats we hear," Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference.

But he said the intelligence was "Not specific enough to any target," to avoid raising the level across the whole country.

The color-coded terror threat warning system has five levels. It was previously set at "yellow," the third-highest level, signifying the threat is "elevated." The hike to "orange," or "high," is the fourth time the level has been raised since the system was introduced last year.

The threat level was last raised on March 17, moments after Bush gave then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to capitulate or face war. The alert level was returned to yellow on April 16 as what officials called major combat operations in Iraq came to an end.

The latest hike follows two -- apparently coordinated -- series of terror attacks in the Middle East last week.

Suicide bombings of three U.S. housing complexes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed 34 people, including the nine attackers on May 12. On Friday, a similar series of bombings aimed at Western and Jewish targets in Casablanca, Morocco, left 42 dead.

One private sector counter-terrorism analyst who consults for U.S. government agencies told United Press International on condition of anonymity it was significant that two series of attacks in two different countries appeared to have been timed to coincide as closely as possible.

"That suggests there's still a global command structure in place, someone coordinating between the cells in different countries," the analyst said.

Tuesday's decision was taken at a hastily convened meeting of the Homeland Security Council chaired by President Bush at the White House, which Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge cut short a morning session with lawmakers to attend.

Also Tuesday, officials announced the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and its consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran, until at least next Sunday, because of what the U.S. State Department called "credible information that further terrorist attacks are being planned against unspecified targets," in the kingdom.

British authorities also announced the closure of their embassy in Saudi Arabia.

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