Al-Qaida threat to U.S. water supply

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  May 28, 2003 at 7:55 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 28 (UPI) -- A spokesman for al-Qaida has told an Arabic-language news magazine that the terror group is planning to try and use poisons to attack the United States, specifically threatening to contaminate the nation's water supply.

Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj told the London-based al-Majallah magazine that "al Qaida (does not rule out) using Sarin gas and poisoning drinking water in U.S. and Western cities."

"We will talk about (these weapons) then and the infidels will know what harms them. They spared no effort in their war on us in Afghanistan. They should not therefore rule out the possibility that we will present them with our capabilities," the magazine quotes al-Ablaj as saying in an e-mail interview last week. The interview was published in the latest edition of al-Majallah, dated May 25.

Some U.S. officials play down the threat, but others point out that al-Ablaj had communicated with the magazine prior to the suicide attacks earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, warning that al-Qaida was about to stage a major offensive in the kingdom.

"The consensus (in the intelligence community) seems to be -- and I concur -- that (al-Ablaj) is credible and does have a connection with al-Qaida," Ben Venzke, a counter-terrorism analyst who consults with U.S. government agencies, told United Press International. "The statements he makes should be taken seriously, especially in light of his apparent prior knowledge of the Riyadh bombings."

A U.S. intelligence official, who would not comment on al-Ablaj's credibility, played down the threat to U.S. water supplies in a brief interview with UPI. "It is very difficult to covertly poison a reservoir," the official said. "It would take many truckloads of poison, which would make it difficult to do secretly. That is not really a viable threat."

Al-Ablaj, who describes himself as the commander of al-Qaida's "mujahedin training center," first contacted al-Majallah in March, according to the magazine. A U.S. government translation of a recent article says that al-Ablaj sent them an e-mail on April 7, declaring that al-Qaida "had completed their preparations to carry out a massive action targeting the (Saudi) regime ... and that this action would be implemented within one month or less."

The magazine "opted not to publish (the e-mail's) contents in order to check its validity," the translation goes on.

On May 10, just two days before the series of coordinated suicide attacks in Riyadh killed 34 people, including eight Americans, he e-mailed them again. In the interim, Saudi authorities had broken up a cell of 19 alleged al-Qaida members.

The plan "was not affected by the Saudi security services' success," the magazine reported him as saying. "He said the plan is proceeding," the magazine went on in a report published less than 24 hours after the attacks, "without any significant changes and (he) pointed out that the time is getting closer day by day to prove the validity of what he is saying."

"Beyond his communications to al-Majallah, al-Ablaj is an unknown quantity," said Venzke, "but his blip on the radar screen got a lot bigger after that."

"The threat and the tone is consistent with other messages from al-Qaida, and we believe that the communication channel is credible," he went on. Noting the apparently coordinated series of suicide attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca, and the subsequent hike in the U.S. threat level, Venzke said, "It doesn't prove capability, but in light of recent events, we're viewing this threat with strong concern."

In February 2002, Italian police in Rome arrested four Moroccans, believed to be al-Qaida supporters, with 9 pounds of a cyanide compound and maps of the capital's water supply marking the U.S. Embassy's location.

The U.S. intelligence official also played down threats to even a single building. "It's more feasible if they try to poison a specific building," the official said. "But even then, the volume of water already going through the system would dilute whatever was introduced. It would be very difficult to kill anyone. What would happen would be that people would get sick, which would cause panic."

An FBI bulletin early last year, cited in Venzke's book, "The Al-Qaida Threat," stated: "U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have learned that al-Qaida members ... specifically sought information on water supply and waste water management practices in the United States and abroad."

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