New York City Police officers armed with automatic weapons were stationed at city landmarks including Wall Street, Times Square and the September 11 memorial site where the Twin Towers once stood.
U.S. officials said Thursday they were investigating the ‘credible but unconfirmed’ threat that al-Qaeda was planning to use a car bomb to target bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the first tip of an “active plot” around that date.
There was reason to believe threat may be linked to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, a U.S. official told Reuters on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
New Yorkers who have grown accustomed to bag searches at subway stations and random displays of police presence encountered increased vigilance after the threat, which prompted President Barack Obama to order a redoubling of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
A manhunt was under way for two or three suspects, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity. One said there could be a link to Zawahri, who took the reins of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in May in a U.S. raid in Pakistan.
Near the site known as Ground Zero, where a new World Trade Center is under reconstruction and Obama will attend Sunday’s commemoration, police established a checkpoint behind the historic Trinity Church, stopping vehicles, opening the cargo bays of trucks and checking drivers’ licenses.
Similar checkpoints went up at Times Square, Columbus Circle on the southern edge of Central Park and outside the Macy’s department store in midtown, creating traffic jams all over Manhattan.
“The commute on the train this morning was horrible but it was worth it because we are being protected,” said Mario Vigorigo, 42, a wireless manager from Brooklyn.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a joint intelligence bulletin Thursday night to law enforcement around the country urging them to maintain enhanced security and be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the homeland security department, said in a statement: “As we know from the intelligence gathered from the Osama bin Laden raid, al-Qaida has shown an interest in important dates and anniversaries, such as 9/11. In this instance, it’s accurate that there is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information.
“As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days. Sometimes this reporting is credible and warrants intense focus, other times it lacks credibility and is highly unlikely to be reflective of real plots under way.”
“Regardless, we take all threat reporting seriously, and we have taken, and will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate any threats that arise. We continue to ask the American people to remain vigilant as we head into the weekend.”
A senior law enforcement official told Reuters police patrols and security will be stepped up beginning at 3 p.m. EDT to coincide with the evening rush hour. The operation will involve a “big show of force” which will include teams of officers armed with heavy weapons.
While the rush-hour operation had been planned some time ago, the forces and tactics deployed were increased after authorities received the intelligence threat this week.
The intelligence included possible threats of attacks targeting subways or commuter trains or possible car bomb attacks in New York or Washington, U.S. officials said.
“We have to be concerned. Terrorism is theater and this is a stage, right now probably the world’s biggest stage,” said New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “We have the opening of the 9/11 memorial, the president and two former presidents here, obviously a lot of high profile public officials will be here, so we have to be concerned,” Kelly added.
In addition to the vehicle checkpoints, police would assign additional officers to cover bridges and tunnels, increase bag searches in the subway system, deploy radiation detectors and employ bomb-sniffing dogs, Kelly told NY1 television.
Vice President Joseph Biden said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program on Friday morning, “We don’t have the smoking gun but we do have talk about using a car bomb.”
A counterterrorism official said the threat information came from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Notes sezied in the U.S. raid on the Pakistani hideout of Osama bin Laden, the former al-Qaeda leader, in May, indicated that the terrorist network had discussed the possibility of attacks to coincide with Sunday’s anniversary. A strike against American trains was suggested.
The suspected threat came as America prepared to mark the anniversary of 9/11 with a series of events commemorating the nearly 3,000 people who died when hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Centre in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
The largest event will be the reading of victims’ names at Ground Zero in Manhattan. It will be attended by many victims’ family members, Mr Obama, former president George W. Bush, and Mr Bloomberg.
Although there have been no attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the United States in the 10 years since, the nation has been on heightened alert amid a series of foiled and failed threats. [via Reuters]