Washington, July 29: US officials said today that they have learned of credible threats of possible new airline suicide hijackings by terrorists planned for the latter part of the summer.
The information was developed in recent interviews with one or more high-level al Qaida captives and corroborated separately by other means, including electronic intercepts, officials said. They described the possible scenarios as similar to the hijackings of four US airliners on September 11, 2001, that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania.
“The US intelligence community has received information related to al Qaida’s continued interest in using commercial aviation here in the US and abroad to further their cause,” said department of homeland security spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “The department of homeland security issued an advisory regarding this information over the weekend to the appropriate airline and security personnel.”
Information about the possible attacks began emerging last week, government sources said. It could not be learned yesterday which al Qaida captives had provided the information, but officials said they had taken steps to verify its credibility. “It didn’t just come from one place,” an intelligence official said.
“We are continuing to investigate the credibility of the information,” Johndroe said.
Homeland security officials said they have no immediate plans to raise the government’s threat index, which mandates stepped-up security by local, state and federal officials throughout the country, but said the threat level is evaluated every day. The threat level was dropped on May 30 to “yellow,” indicating “elevated risk”. After a 10-day stretch at level “orange,” indicating “high risk.”
The index was boosted to orange in response to al Qaida’s May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an increase in al Qaida “chatter” gathered through a variety of intelligence methods.
Several high-level al Qaida operatives have been captured since the Riyadh bombings.
Law enforcement and security officials have been notified of the new information, as have the airlines.
Federal intelligence agencies have briefed senior administration officials.
“We routinely provide intelligence information to the private sector, and state and local law enforcement, so that they may be informed and take any necessary precautions,” Johndroe said. “Our aviation security has been dramatically strengthened since September 11 with the introduction of reinforced cockpit doors, federal air marshals and federal baggage screeners.”
The new threats could result in increased random checks and searches of passengers and baggage at airports.
Although security on commercial airliners is much tighter than it was two years ago, some soft areas remain. Passenger baggage is now scanned for explosives and other prohibited devices, but air cargo is shipped on commercial planes is not electronically screened routinely.
News of the threat comes in the busy summer travel season, a situation not lost on federal officials who face the difficult task of warning the public without further damaging the troubled airline industry. The airlines have lost $18 billion in the past two years, and they have argued that increased security costs, along with higher fuel costs and the war with Iraq, have contributed to the damage.