Official: al-Qaida Seeks
May 18, 8:43 PM (ET)
By KATHERINE PFLEGER SHRADER
WASHINGTON (AP) - The top intelligence
official at the Homeland Security Department, worried about an
increased risk of
attack in coming months, says al-Qaida wants to strike
on U.S. soil with something other than a conventional explosive
- perhaps with a
chemical or biological weapon.
Retired Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes said in an
Associated Press interview that America has gotten better at
predicting and safeguarding itself against attacks since Sept.
11, 2001. But Hughes said he fears that new terrorists "are
being made every single day on the streets of the Middle
As Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge prepares to
testify Wednesday before the Sept. 11 commission in New York,
Hughes and his deputies at the agency's information analysis
division say the nation's security has improved since the
terrorist attacks claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
"We had a dark age on 9/11," Hughes said in
the interview Monday evening. "Now, we are trying to make
ourselves more secure in a way that is palatable and
Still, significant threats remain,
especially now, as high "background noise" from terrorists and
heightened sensitivity during the election year has officials
on guard for a possible attack whose nature they can't quite
Hughes marks the orange alert at the
holidays as the start of a new era of threats.
"We have a new norm," said Hughes, who
believes terrorists learned about security checks and changes
implemented during that alert and have adapted.
- based on captured material, interviews and other sources of
information - Hughes said he believes al-Qaida wants to strike with something
other than a conventional explosive device.
worries about chemical and biological attacks, including a
dirty bomb. And, in particular, he points to the possibility of
another anthrax biological attack, following the one that
wreaked havoc on the postal system, closed a Senate building
for three months and killed five in 2001.
"It's not the only one," Hughes
said of that possibility, but anthrax is easy to produce and
disperse, he said, noting that the recipes for it and the
deadly poison, ricin, are on the Internet. "It's not
hard to do."
U.S. officials are adapting, too. Unlike
before the attacks, encrypted networks now link hundreds of law
enforcement and security officials across the country to an
operations center at the department's campus, about six miles
from the White House. When threat information indicates a
heightened risk, a 24-hour operations center opens there, run
out of a windowless conference room. And, bulletins to state
and local officials routinely go out to inform about
In late April, in one example, Homeland
officials and the FBI put out a lengthy warning advising local
law enforcement authorities to be on guard for possible truck
bombs, or vehicle-borne explosive devices, according to a copy
of the four-page document obtained by The Associated Press.
Hughes ticks off a list of terrorist attacks
that began in the 1990s - Khobar Towers, the African embassy
bombings, the USS Cole, bombings in Saudi Arabia and the Middle
East and 9/11 - and worries that terrorists are able to show
"If the past is indeed prologue, then we are
going to screw up, or they are going to get lucky," Hughes
said. "I can't sleep."
Aides note it is his job to worry.
Still, for reasons Hughes can't explain,
there was no attack at the holidays. Ridge, too, has said he
believes an attack was averted.
Perhaps, Hughes said, it comes down to the
work of the government, here and overseas: Passengers and
flights, most originating out of Europe, were searched in
extraordinary ways. Some were canceled.
"It is an axiom of terrorism that you don't
conduct terrorist attacks without absolute secrecy," he