U.S. intelligence officials are scrutinizing recent arrests in England, Jordan and Italy of three groups of alleged terrorists because of clues the groups might offer to possible al Qaeda plans to attack the United States this summer or fall, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
The investigation of the alleged rings has added to Western intelligence agencies' understanding of al Qaeda's possible methods of attacking the United States and its practice of embedding "sleeper" operatives into workaday lives with plans to have them facilitate an attack years later, said a senior intelligence official who requested anonymity.
One of the alleged rings was broken up in Britain in March, when eight men of Pakistani origin were arrested with more than 1,000 pounds of fertilizer stuffed into a self-storage container near London's Heathrow Airport. The material can be used as an explosive.
In April, Jordanian officials said they foiled a terrorist plot involving 10 men -- four of them killed in a shootout -- to use trucks loaded with chemicals such as nerve gas and blistering agents to attack U.S. and Israeli sites there.
Last month, authorities in Italy and Belgium arrested 17 Muslim radicals. Officials say one suspect is a former Egyptian army explosives expert who helped plan the March 11 train bombings in Madrid. Officials said the ring was planning another terrorist strike.
"Not only did they have individuals in place, but they had the means to the end that were part of the plot," Ridge said yesterday, referring to the arrests in all three countries. "They had the munitions and the ability to conduct the terrorist attack."
The senior intelligence official, who talked to reporters at Homeland Security's Washington headquarters, said U.S. officials believe the men arrested in Britain also had hatched plans to mount a terrorist attack. The official said some had been "in place for many years and then [had] become facilitators" for an attack, and might have planned to go "into an operational mode" to carry out a strike.
The intelligence official repeated recent warnings that al Qaeda might try to use trucks or cars loaded with fertilizer or chemical weapons in an attack on U.S. soil in the coming months.
Ridge and senior intelligence officials from several U.S. agencies reiterated earlier warnings that they have persuasive intelligence that terrorists want to disrupt the U.S. electoral process. The terrorists would see such an attack as a reprise to what they believe was their success in bringing down the Spanish government in an election days after the March 11 train bombings, which killed 191, Ridge said.
"We are very comfortable with the credibility of the sources" whose information leads officials to fear an attack in coming months, Ridge said. Officials have said the sources include al Qaeda-affiliated people whose communications were picked up by electronic surveillance.
The senior intelligence official said the government's current warnings are based on "a very strong body of intelligence. . . . Every day there are nuggets that come in" to fill out the picture, he added.
Both Ridge and the senior intelligence official used the same language in saying that al Qaeda appears to be operating on the "mistaken belief" that, in Ridge's words, "their attacks [in the United States] will have an impact on America's resolve."
A second senior intelligence official told reporters that U.S. government agencies are worried not only about attacks on the Democratic and Republican political conventions this summer, but also on polling places Nov. 2, Election Day.
"This issue has not escaped us," he said of the danger of attacks on polling places. "It's a very complex one."
Ridge said he will meet soon with officials from the NCAA and the nation's professional sports leagues to strengthen security at sporting events.
Ridge said he and the four senior intelligence officials joined in the briefing in an effort to update the public on the terrorism threats, but the event resembled others by his department lately in that they listed various Bush administration achievements in domestic defense.
Rand Beers, homeland security adviser for the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said in a statement yesterday that "our homeland security effort at home is underfunded and poorly managed." Beers, who was a counterterrorism official in the Bush White House, was expressing a viewpoint widely shared by Democrats and some homeland security experts.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who heads the House Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security, said Ridge's news conference resembled an "infomercial" for his department, which she said has failed to secure U.S. transit systems.