Threats raise terror alert for five financial targets

WASHINGTON – The federal government raised the terror alert level Sunday to “high” for the financial services sectors in New York City, Washington, and Newark, N.J., citing remarkably detailed intelligence showing that al-Qaida operatives have been plotting for years to blow up specific buildings with car or truck bombs.

In Sunday’s announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the newly acquired information – including photos, drawings and written documents – pointed to five potential targets:

* The New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp Center in New York;

* The International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington;

* The Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J.

All five institutions said they planned to be open for business today.

“This is not chatter,” said Sid Caspersen, director of the New Jersey Office of Counterterrorism. “It was a long-term operations plan developed over months, perhaps years.”

The intelligence shows that al-Qaida has been casing those buildings since well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has continued to do so since then, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official.

But authorities said they do not know when the operatives were planning to carry out any of the bombings.

Terrorists assembled a wealth of information about the institutions, officials said – including details about their construction; the best methods of discreet observation; the locations of nearby hospitals, police stations and schools; and what kinds of explosives would do the most damage to the various structures.

The fresh intelligence comes from documents discovered after Pakistani and U.S. forces broke up an al-Qaida cell in Pakistan eight days ago, U.S. intelligence officials said Sunday. One of the men arrested in that raid led authorities to the documents.

The heightened alert marks the first time that Homeland Security officials have focused the government’s color-coded threat system on specific geographic areas. The five earlier orange alerts, which indicate a high risk of terrorist attack, have been applied to the nation as a whole, most recently on Dec. 31, 2003. The rest of the nation remains on yellow alert, or “elevated risk.”

“The quality of this intelligence, based on multiple reporting streams in multiple locations, is rarely seen and it is alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information,” Ridge said.

In response, authorities in Washington, Newark and New York City scrambled to beef up security before government offices and financial markets opened this morning.

In New York, which has remained under an orange alert since the Sept. 11 attacks and which will host the Republican National Convention later this month, police teams and anti-terror squads will bar trucks from certain New York bridges, establish check-points throughout Manhattan and double security around key office buildings, including the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp buildings mentioned in the federal alert. In Newark, heavily armed police set up posts around the 21-story Prudential headquarters.

In the District of Columbia, police announced plans to stop and inspect cars and trucks around the IMF and World Bank buildings and other sensitive sites downtown, to activate additional surveillance cameras and to flood the areas with foot and car patrols.

A terrorist strike on a U.S. bank would have little effect on the country’s banking system as a whole, officials said Sunday.

Millions of dollars have been spent since Sept. 11 to develop redundant systems that could take over in a terrorist attack against an individual bank to make sure that people could still cash checks, make deposits and withdraw money from automatic teller machines.

The Fed has refined the procedures it used after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to monitor payment flows between banks and, if necessary, flood the financial system with money to make sure temporary disruptions in those flows don’t cascade into serious problems.

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