Al-Qaeda is close to completing its avowed plan to strike the US again with a major attack, according to top US law enforcement officials who want the public's help in locating seven terror operatives labeled a "clear and present danger" by US Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Ashcroft said a steady stream of "disturbing" intelligence, collected for months, could mean terrorists already are in the US to execute the plan, though he acknowledged there is no new information indicating when, where or how an attack might happen.
"We do believe that al-Qaeda plans to attack the US, and that is a result of intelligence that is corroborated at a variety of levels," Ashcroft said at a news conference Wednesday with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Ashcroft and Mueller announced an intensified level of counterterrorism activity for the summer. This includes:
Interviews with individuals who could provide intelligence about terrorism.
Creation of a new FBI task force to focus on the threat.
An appeal to all Americans to be extra vigilant about their surroundings, their neighbors and any suspicious activity.
There was no immediate plan to raise the national terror threat level -- now at yellow, the midpoint of the five-level warning system. Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security Department undersecretary for border and transportation security, said, "We don't have the specific information that would justify raising it or would cause us to do it."
Some Democrats charged that the administration was needlessly scaring people, perhaps to divert attention from the continuing problems in Iraq. Ashcroft's announcement came two days after US President George W. Bush began a monthlong initiative to explain administration policy on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry stopped short of charging the announcement was politically motivated. But he questioned the Bush administration's commitment to providing the resources necessary to protect the country, citing gaps in chemical and nuclear plant safety and inadequate protection for US ports.
Ashcroft rejected talk of a political motive, saying greater public vigilance could help head off an attack.
"My job isn't to worry about whether someone will be second-guessing," he said.
Six of the al-Qaeda operatives, including two Canadian citizens, whose photos and backgrounds were highlighted Wednesday have been the subject of FBI pursuit for months. The seventh, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, 25, is a US citizen who grew up on a California goat farm and converted to Islam as a teenager. He was described by Mueller as having attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and served as an al-Qaeda translator.
Each of the suspects, Ashcroft said, presents "a clear and present danger" to the US because of their language skills, familiarity with US culture and ability to travel under multiple aliases and use forged documents.
Ashcroft said al-Qaeda has made adjustments to its tactics to escape easy detection, such as having operatives travel with their families to lower their profiles and recruiting people who can pass for having European ethnicity rather than Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Ashcroft acknowledged there is no new intelligence about the suspects indicating they are in the US or part of a specific al-Qaeda plot. He said it was important that the public be given "a reminder" about them.
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