Nov. 10 - Just a few days after the U.S. election last week, American intelligence officials picked up an eye-popping message on a Web site linked to Al Qaeda. The message warned Americans that the victory of President George W. Bush, "the criminal," would be met by a wave of imminent new terrorist attacks. "The upcoming few days will show you that what you have agreed to [by re-electing Bush] will drag you into an unbearable hell," read the posting.
The message, and a slew of others that have emerged in recent days, serve as sobering reminders that trying to make sense of the terrorist threat facing the country remains as vexing and confusing as ever.
The Homeland Security Department today unexpectedly lowered the threat level from Orange (high) to Yellow (elevated) for financial buildings in New York; Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C.-a move that surprised and even puzzled some counterterrorism officials. Barely three and a half months ago, Secretary Tom Ridge had cited "alarming" and "rarely seen" intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda operatives might be planning to attack the buildings-a move that heightened concerns that the terrorist group might seek to disrupt the presidential election.
But today, Ridge's deputy, James Loy, presented a markedly different picture-and one that the Bush administration was reluctant to fully acknowledge in the course of a hard-fought election campaign that revolved in large part about who was stronger in waging the war on terrorism. The financial-sector buildings that prompted the original concern-such as the World Bank Building in Washington and the New York Stock Exchange-have since been "hardened" and are now better equipped to withstand a potential attack, Loy explained to reporters in a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
Moreover, Loy said that, while administration officials were originally concerned about computer files seized in Pakistan suggesting the buildings had been "cased" or under surveillance, "there's never been any evidence" that Al Qaeda had developed any actual plans to attack them or that there was anything "out of the ordinary" suggesting an attack against any other targets.
Loy emphasized that "we're concerned today as we were a month ago" about a possible attack. Still, the inevitable result of the announcement will be to send a mixed message at a time when, ironically enough, some officials and counterterrorism experts believe the terror threat actually seems to be growing, rather than diminishing.
While some officials breathed a small sigh of relief last week when the election came and went without any terrorist incident, outside experts tell NEWSWEEK there actually has been a marked upsurge just within the last week of jihadi vows of revenge and other threats to U.S. citizens.
"I've never seen it so high," said Ritz Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington-based group that specializes in monitoring terrorist Web sites. "Every day we go online and there are more and more calls to attack Americans. We're seeing more and more messages saying that, for electing Bush, the American public deserves to be hit."
The concern among some U.S. counterterrorism officials has been amplified in recent days by the predictably ferocious response among jihadis to the Fallajuh offensive in Iraq as well as new intelligence suggesting that the Osama bin Laden videotape released on the eve of the election may have been even more ominous than previously thought. In particular, sources tell NEWSWEEK, U.S. officials have now concluded that the bin Laden tape was probably connected to the surfacing of another tape a few days earlier in Pakistan in which an angry, hooded, fluent English-speaker-dubbed "Azzam the American"-vowed that "the streets of America will run red with blood."
U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that the man in the tape was in fact Adam Gadahn, a southern California native (born Adam Pearlman, the son of a 1960s psychedelic musician) who converted to Islam as a teenager and was earlier this year identified by the FBI as a key Al Qaeda operative who served as a translator in bin Laden's training camps.
Perhaps even more significantly, Katz said, the Azzam tape appears to have been made by a shadowy video-production company called Sahab that is traditionally used by Al Qaeda. If true, that would suggest that the Azzam and bin Laden tapes were related, and should perhaps be viewed as two parts of the same message.
Looking for further clues, a more complete translation of previously unreleased portions of the bin Laden tape shows that he made explicit threats that what would seem to be part of a sophisticated strategy aimed at crippling the U.S. economy. In portions of the tape that were never aired by the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera, bin Laden cited the cost-benefit ratio of the September 11 attacks: a $500,000 investment by Al Qaeda to pull off the operation compared to an estimated $500 billion cost to the U.S. economy including the "loss of a huge number of jobs."
"So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," bin Laden said in the tape. Showing an unexpectedly keen ear for the U.S. political debate, bin Laden made a point of referring to the "size of the contracts acquired by the shady Bush administration-linked megacorporations, like Halliburton."
What to make of all this? Many U.S. counterterrorism officials are stumped … and anxious. The significance of the Internet postings is hard to read. The Web site of the group called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades-which issued the post-election threat to plunge the United States into an "unbearable hell"-is closely monitored by U.S. counterintelligence and received some attention earlier this year when it took credit for the Madrid railway bombings. In fact, the group's linkage of that event to the Spanish elections a few days later was a primary factor in prompting warnings from Bush administration officials that Al Qaeda might be planning an attack to disrupt the U.S. elections, a major factor behind Ridge's original Code Orange announcement.
But the site is also known to take credit for events, like last year's electricity blackout in the Northeast, that it clearly had nothing to do with, making its reliability subject to question. And for all the heightened security fears in recent months, the FBI has yet to uncover any evidence of a particular Al Qaeda plot inside the United States, much less being able to identify any "sleeper cells" or operatives who might be in a position to carry them out.
Still, officials say, the "totality" of the threat environment seems troubling-one reason some were surprised by the timing of today's announcement. Indeed, Attorney General John Ashcroft (who announced his resignation Tuesday in a statement touting his success in waging the war on terrorism) reinforced the message in a private comment to his own staff on the morning that John Kerry conceded the election. For those who might be tempted to relax, Ashcroft told his staffers as they were leaving the meeting, just remember one point: "Al Qaeda," he said, "hasn't issued a concession speech."