FBI Warns U.S. Banks of Threat
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 systems.
There was no discussion about closing financial institutions, officials said. Banking leaders said they would be vigilant but had no plans to curtail operations.
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 is accurate."
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" terrorism.
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 Zubaida's information.
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 2001.
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