War near; U.S. at high-risk alert; FBI stands ready to mobilize

| 3/18/2003

The Department of Homeland Security has raised the nation's color-coded threat level from yellow to orange, or "high risk," in the wake of President Bush’s "exile or war" scenario laid out March 17 for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons.

There is no confirmed threat at a specific place or time, but Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge said al-Qaida would "probably attempt attacks claiming that they were defending Muslims or the Iraqi people."

According to Ridge, recent indications are that al-Qaida’s planning includes the use of chemical, biological, and/or radiological materials.

FBI ready to mobilize

Meanwhile, should U.S. forces invade Iraq, the FBI plans to mobilize as many as 5,000 agents to guard against terrorist attacks, monitor or arrest suspected militants and interview thousands of Iraqis living in the United States, according to officials familiar with the effort quoted by The Washington Post.

The FBI operation, which would approach the scale of the investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, reflects widespread fears that the risk of attack would increase dramatically in the event of war.

While authorities told the newspaper most Iraqis living in the United States are not a threat, they are concerned that Muslim extremists may retaliate for war with suicide bombings and other attacks, the sources said.

Many of the FBI's criminal surveillance operations would be temporarily suspended to focus on potential terrorism or espionage suspects, one top law-enforcement official said. Any immigration violators found during interviews and sweeps would be detained, several officials said. The steps are part of a detailed contingency plan developed by the FBI over the past year.

Although Bush administration officials do not emphasize it publicly, U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism experts agree a war in Iraq would dramatically increase the chances of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, The Post reported.

At the start of a war, FBI headquarters and all 56 field offices would immediately staff 24-hour command centers in conjunction with 66 joint terrorism task forces around the country, authorities said.