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Fbi alert for sleeper cell

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America's most wanted: FBI alert for al-Qaeda sleeper cell


Key points:

• US attorney general says "credible intelligence" suggests al-Qaeda may commit major atrocity during summer
• John Ashcroft also produces images of seven suspected terrorists who "present a clear and present danger to America"
• Security think-tank claima al-Qaeda has 18,000 terrorists waiting to attack targets in Europe and US

Key Quote: "This disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard," - Mr Ashcroft.

Story in full: FEARS of an imminent terrorist strike on the United States grew yesterday with a warning that al-Qaeda is "almost ready" to launch a new assault on the scale of the Madrid bombings or the 11 September attacks.

The US attorney general, John Ashcroft, cited "credible intelligence from multiple sources" suggesting the terrorist network could be planning to hit one of several high-profile events planned for the summer, including a Group of Eight economic summit and party political conventions.

Mr Ashcroft also unveiled images of seven suspected al-Qaeda members who, he said, "present a clear and present danger to America".

The warning comes a day after a leading security think-tank claimed that al-Qaeda had more than 18,000 terrorists waiting for the order to attack targets in Europe and the US, preferably with weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking at a justice department news conference yesterday, Mr Ashcroft said the intelligence, together with recent public statements attributed to al-Qaeda, "suggest that it is almost ready to attack the United States".

"This disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard," he said.

The warning was not accompanied by an increase in the US terror alert status, which has remained at mid-level since January.

"Several upcoming events over the next few months may present especially attractive targets for such an al-Qaeda attack," said Mr Ashcroft.

Those events include the opening of a Second World War memorial this weekend in Washington, the G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia, in June, the Fourth of July national holiday and the Democratic and Republican party conventions in Boston and New York at the end of the summer, ahead of the November presidential elections.

The FBI director, Robert Mueller, who appeared with Mr Ashcroft, cited a "heightened threat to United States’ interests around the world". He said: "We do not know what form the threat might take."

The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq due to the political repercussions of the 11 March train bombings in Spain, Mr Ashcroft added, could lead al-Qaeda to attempt to influence US politics.

Ahead of the US presidential election, "al-Qaeda may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar consequences," Mr Ashcroft said.

Yesterday’s warning places terrorism back at the centre of the political agenda at a time when attention has been focused on prisoner abuses and military action in Iraq, leading some critics to suggest the timing of the announcement was politically motivated.

The US president, George Bush, has highlighted the war against terror as a central theme of his re-election campaign. He has lost ground in the polls, his approval ratings falling to the lowest point of his presidency.

Some law enforcement and firefighters’ union representatives, supporters of the Democrat presidential contender, John Kerry, suggested that the timing of the announcement of the threat was suspicious because of polls showing a sagging approval rating for Mr Bush.

The International Association of Firefighters’ president, Harold Schaitberger, said the intelligence has been in the government’s hands for weeks.

The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, however, denied that there was a political aspect to the threat report.

"The president believes it’s very important to share information appropriately," Mr McClellan said. "We do that in a number of ways when it comes to looking at the threats we face here in the homeland.

"We’ve continued to receive a stream of credible intelligence reporting over the last couple of months that points to the possibility of an attack or attacks inside the United States. We know that they would like to have a dramatic effect."

The intelligence does not contain specifics such as timing, method or place of an attack. But officials say it is highly credible and backed with greater corroboration than usual, including information that operatives may already be in the US. Mr Mueller and Mr Ashcroft drew attention to enlarged photographs of seven suspected al-Qaeda operatives that the FBI has been pursuing for months.

They include Adnan El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native who once lived in Florida, and Aafia Siddiqui, a woman from Pakistan who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We are not aware of details of a plan," Mr Ashcroft said when pressed for specifics.

The attorney general said recent intelligence indicated that al-Qaeda operatives might now be travelling with their families to attract less suspicion and that the terror network has been seeking recruits "who can portray themselves as European". He portrayed the "ideal al-Qaeda operative" as an individual in their late 20s or early 30s.

To focus on the danger, the FBI has established a 2004 Threat Task Force and FBI analysts are reviewing previously collected intelligence to see if it contains any clues to the latest alert.

There will also be a series of interviews conducted by the FBI with individuals who could have information about potential plots.

Earlier yesterday, the US homeland security secretary, TomRidge, said there were no current plans to lift the national alert status from yellow, where it has stood since January. That is the mid-level on a five-step warning programme.

"First of all, every day we take a look at the overall threat reporting that we receive," Mr Ridge said.

"There’s not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level ... We do not need to raise the threat level to increase security. Right now, there’s no need to put the entire country on a [elevated] national alert," he said.

Asked whether Mr Ridge’s comment suggested a difference of opinion between his office and the office of homeland security, Mr Ashcroft told reporters: "I believe we’re all on the same page."

Mr Mueller said that "extraordinary precautions" were already being taken to protect the sites of the two political conventions as well as next month’s G8 summit.

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