Washington The FBI rushed Monday night to issue its most specific terrorist alert since Sept. 11, warning that a Yemeni man and more than a dozen associates may be planning attacks in the United States or against U.S. targets in Yemen as early as today.
Authorities identified one possible attacker as Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, a Yemeni national believed to have been born in Saudi Arabia in 1979. The alert said that al-Rabeei and up to 16 others from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Tunisia may be plotting a terrorist assault.
No specific targets known
No specific targets or methods of attack are known, but the report is deemed credible and came from interviews with al-Qaida prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said.
None of the men named in the alert are known are to have entered the United States, one FBI official said.
The warning marks the fourth publicized alert since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which killed more than 3,000 people, and was notably more specific than the other three.
But the relative importance of the alert was difficult to gauge Monday night, as various Bush administration officials offered differing characterizations of the information underlying the warning.
FBI officials, saying they were alarmed by the specificity of information they had uncovered and worried by the ongoing Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, took the unusual step of publicizing the threat alert on their Web site instead of limiting its distribution to 18,000 law-enforcement agencies.
But one administration official characterized the information as uncorroborated and compared it to a less publicized alert about a terrorist threat in Texas in December.
Susan K. Neely, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, said Monday night that Ridge was briefed on the warning but that it was viewed strictly as an FBI advisory.
According to the alert, "recent information indicates a planned attack may occur in the United States or against U.S. interests in the country of Yemen on or around 2/12/02. One or more operatives may be involved in the attack."
The FBI asked local and state police to "stop and detain" any of the 17 people named in the alert and said that all "should be considered extremely dangerous." The alert came "as a result of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and on-going interviews of detainees in Guantanamo Bay," according to the FBI.
Ridge issued the last general terrorism alert on Dec. 3 and it was slated to last through the holiday season. That alert was later extended through March 11, in part to encompass large public events like the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.
Too many alerts?
Many local police chiefs and some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the benefits of the various alerts issued by Ridge, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Atty. Gen. John D. Ashcroft.
Ridge's office has been working closely with other federal agencies, governors and state and local law enforcement officials to try to devise a new national alert system that makes better use of intelligence in rating the seriousness of the terrorist threat.
Officials said the suspected ringleader, al-Rabeei, uses numerous aliases, including Furqan the Chechen, and may be traveling on a Yemeni passport.