Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 1 News List

US raises terror alert level

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

The US government raised its terror alert to the second highest level on Sunday and warned Americans there was a high risk militants might launch attacks around the holidays in the US that could be bigger than those of Sept. 11, 2001.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said threat indicators are "perhaps greater now than at any point" since the 2001 attacks and promised that all federal departments and agencies would increase their defenses against what he called "al-Qaeda's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland."

The warning came despite White House assurances that many of al-Qaeda's operations had been disrupted and that the occupation of Iraq was making the world safer.

Ridge said al-Qaeda might try to use aircraft in new attacks -- as Osama bin Laden's global network of militants did to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon more than two years ago, killing nearly 3,000 people.

US officials attributed the warning to "credible sources," and ordered the color-coded alert system raised to orange -- denoting "a high risk" of terrorist attacks -- from yellow, which the Department of Homeland Security defines as "a significant" or "elevated" risk of terrorist attacks.

It is the fifth time that the orange alert has been activated since the system was instituted in March last year.

"The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New York and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania," said Ridge, who met early on Sunday with President George W. Bush's homeland security advisers.

At a hastily arranged news conference, Ridge said security would be beefed up at the nation's airports and more agents would be deployed along its borders. Coast Guard air and sea patrols will also increase to protect the nation's critical ports and shipping lanes.

"We will not broadcast our plans to the terrorists. But extensive and considerable protections have been or soon will be in place all across the country," Ridge said.

US officials singled out New York and Washington as possibly the highest-profile targets.

The new warning comes one week after the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, which gave Bush a pre-election year boost in the polls. Bush has portrayed the occupation of Iraq as a front in the war on terrorism.

But Democrats complain the government has not done enough to boost security in the US.

"Homeland security is not nearly what it ought to be," Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat seeking his party's presidential nomination, told Fox News Sunday.

The alert announcement came amid the year-end holiday travel rush. In the past, the administration has been wary of spooking travelers and setting back the nation's economic recovery and Ridge sought to reassure anxious Americans preparing for the holidays.

"If you've got travel plans, travel," he said. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said he thought the announcement came too late to prompt a spate of cancellations.

Ridge's decision had an immediate effect across the nation.

In New York, which has been continuously on orange alert, police patrols were being increased and deployed, the officials said, to cover bridges, tunnels, landmarks and "signature buildings" such as the New York Stock Exchange. "We're not letting our guard down," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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