US investigators searched for three people today in connection with a possible al-Qa’ida bomb plot timed to the days surrounding the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Authorities identified the individuals after searching through hundreds of flight logs and other records. Investigators said they believed at least one suspect is in the US, but added that the information was preliminary.
Two of the three individuals are believed to be US citizens, according to a person briefed on the matter, but it was unclear whether they were US-born or naturalised. No names were released.
Officials said they believed the plot, which was deemed “specific and credible,” might involve car bombs in New York and Washington, DC, and could be planned as early as tonight (AEST). Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were still trying to assess whether a plot was under way or they were pursuing a false lead intended to trip up US security and scare Americans.
Vice-President Joe Biden said information about the plot came from a “credible source.” But he cautioned: “We don’t have the smoking gun.”
The information was obtained by US intelligence officials earlier this week from a source in Afghanistan who has been reliable in the past. The source told Americans that al-Qa’ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed to be in Pakistan, approved the plot. But US officials stressed that the information has yet to be corroborated.
The threat spurred law-enforcement officials to roll out extra security precautions today, including vehicle checkpoints in New York where police officers scrutinised trucks and vans.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered extra state troopers to help secure the World Trade Centre site, Pennsylvania Station, Grand Central Terminal and the region’s bridges and tunnels.
Many of the security measures were already planned around the September 11 anniversary but some measures were stepped up in response to the threat.
In the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May, the US has characterised the threat from al-Qa’ida’s central leadership in Pakistan as waning. But a counterterrorism official said the information this week included a description of the individuals involved, their tactics, target locations and the plot’s timing for the anniversary.
“This is getting our attention because of its specificity,” the counterterrorism official said.
US intelligence picked up the information late on Wednesday. Early Thursday, intelligence authorities alerted the Department of Homeland Security so it could beef up security measures. DHS spent much of Thursday working with New York and Washington police to shore up security.
Since then, the US has been working to corroborate the threat information, examining previously collected intelligence to verify or flesh out the plot details. They are working to see whether there are more than three operatives.
Officials repeatedly said the information remains unconfirmed and could be an al-Qa’ida attempt to misdirect the US, or the operatives could have overstated their capabilities. US officials said that in the limited time left before the 10th anniversary, they might not be able to verify the intelligence. “We may not get any more,” the counterterrorism official said.
Already, there has been a surge of law-enforcement officers deployed in Washington and New York. Homeland Security is adding additional security at airport checkpoints and boosting the number of air marshals aboard flights.
Word of the possible terror plot spurred New York officials to ramp up plans already in place for the 10th anniversary commemoration.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey put its transportation facilities and the World Trade Centre site on “heightened alert,” a spokesman said, resulting in extra vehicle checks, increased bag checks and more police at airports. Explosive-detecting dogs and radiation-detecting vehicles were positioned at bridges and tunnels, the PATH train system and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
New York police officers manned the entrances to subway lines at midtown’s Penn Station with guard dogs and riot gear, and low-flying helicopters buzzed over the Brooklyn Bridge, even as throngs of tourists continued snapping photographs of the East River. Many said they were unfazed by the extra security.
Police installed vehicle checkpoints on the streets leading into Times Square, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill as officers inspected every truck and pulled over cars.
“It took us 20 minutes just to turn the corner,” said Oscal Nunez, a metalworker trying to drive his van to a nearby theatre.
Additional reporting: Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman , Julian E. Barnes, Keith Johnson, Tamer El-Ghobashy, Sean Gardiner and Shelly