Bin Laden Aide's Information Cited
by Walter Pincus and Bill Miller, The Washington Post
The FBI, acting on information drawn from a top al
Qaeda lieutenant captured in Pakistan, warned
financial institutions in the northeastern and
mid-Atlantic United States yesterday to be on alert
for terrorist attacks.
Abu Zubaida, the top aide of Osama bin Laden,
revealed during interrogation by the CIA and the FBI
that al Qaeda terrorists were threatening to attack
U.S. financial institutions, according to senior
administration officials. That led to the
unprecedented government alert to about 7,600 banks,
savings and loans, credit unions, brokerage houses and
other financial institutions.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on April
12 that Abu Zubaida was talking to interrogators, but
yesterday's developments were the first public sign of
what those conversations were yielding.
Although they have been unable to determine the
veracity of the threat, FBI officials said they issued
the warning out of "an abundance of caution."
Authorities said they had no details about plots,
timing, locations or targets. However, they said they
believed the attack likely would be a physical strike
at a structure rather than an attempt to disrupt Wall
Street and financial markets by disabling computer
There was no discussion about closing financial
institutions, officials said. Banking leaders said
they would be vigilant but had no plans to curtail
Abu Zubaida, 31, was seriously wounded by three
bullets last month while trying to escape. He is being
questioned by the CIA and the FBI at an undisclosed
site, which is said to be in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
As bin Laden's chief field operations officer, the
Palestinian was known to be aware of ongoing plans to
conduct terrorist operations, and officials had hoped
he could be persuaded to provide that information.
Based on his position, Abu Zubaida had knowledge of
other members of the terrorist networks, some of whom
he may have been in contact with over the past several
months. In his role as field director, Abu Zubaida
traveled widely in Europe and Central Asia while
maintaining communications with al Qaeda cells.
"He would be in position to know a lot," a senior
official said, "but that doesn't suggest what he says
CIA and FBI agents in the United States and abroad
are still trying to check what they have learned from
the interrogations, but until then Abu Zubaida remains
"a work in progress," the official added.
But al Qaeda officials have periodically made
reference to their interest in disrupting American
financial markets. In a video made public this week,
bin Laden boasted about Wall Street losses that
resulted from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The decision to issue the warning followed
discussions Thursday and yesterday by numerous top
officials, including Attorney General John D.
Ashcroft, CIA Director George J. Tenet, Homeland
Security Director Tom Ridge, Treasury Secretary Paul
H. O'Neill and Pasquale J. D'Amuro, the FBI's
assistant director of counterterrorism.
"Our policy is to share information with
appropriate authorities and the American public when
we have threat information that merits their
attention," Ashcroft told reporters yesterday,
maintaining that doing so "disrupts and prevents"
Ashcroft abruptly postponed a planned trip to
Russia, Hungary and Switzerland he was to begin today.
Justice Department officials said the trip was called
off because of the gravity of the terror alert and
because of other, unspecified security concerns.
In issuing the warning, FBI Director Robert S.
Mueller III said that officials did not want to alarm
banking officials or their customers, but hoped they
would watch for suspicious people and vehicles, then
contact authorities. Areas covered included the
District, Maryland and Virginia, as well as
Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New
Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode
Island and Vermont.
Officials have issued four nationwide alerts since
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, along with numerous
advisories involving nuclear power plants, water
utilities, dams, bridges and crop-dusters.
Last month, after criticism that the alerts and
advisories were too vague to be helpful, Ridge
unveiled a color-coded alert system that he said would
help police and the public gauge the seriousness of
threats. Officials put the nation on a "yellow" alert,
at the middle of the spectrum, denoting a significant
risk of terrorist attack.
Although the new system gives officials the
flexibility to put specific industries in a higher
alert level, they declined to do so based on Abu
The alert was issued four days after the FBI had
issued an unrelated advisory about a warning that a
bomb would be detonated at a national bank in the
center of Washington. That threat, which warned of a
noontime attack last Monday, came from a 13-year-old
boy in the Netherlands.
In that instance, the Office of the Comptroller of
the Currency issued a proclamation allowing banks to
close, and more than 150 bank branches did so.
Yesterday the office did not issue a proclamation.
Terri Bolling, a spokeswoman for Bank of America,
said branches would conduct "business as usual"
because the FBI did not say to do otherwise. Sarah
Holden, a spokeswoman for Wachovia Corp., said
officials were closely monitoring the situation.
Abu Zubaida assumed his operational role in al
Qaeda last November after a U.S. bombing raid in
Afghanistan killed his predecessor, Muhammad Atef. As
bin Laden's senior military planner, Atef supervised
the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania, according to U.S. court testimony in
Before assuming the field operations position, Abu
Zubaida had served as a recruiter and screener of
young Muslims who came to Afghanistan to attend al
Qaeda terrorist training camps. He also helped those
who had completed training to return to their home
countries or take up new residences where terrorist
cells were being established.
When bin Laden and his inner circle called for an
attack, Abu Zubaida would contact the cells that were
to conduct them, authorities have said.
He is known to have organized several planned
attacks on U.S. interests, including the millennium
plots to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and
a hotel in Jordan frequented by American tourists,
U.S. officials say