The Bush administration has raised the nation's terrorist alert status from 'elevated' to 'high' risk. The government is warning citizens of an increasing likelihood of another attack by the al-Qaida network both inside the country and abroad.
The United States is now on its highest level of alert since last year's anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Friday, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the nation was moving from a code yellow, meaning an "elevated" risk of attack, to code orange or "high" risk. That's one level below the highest level red, which indicates a "severe" risk of attack.
"This decision for an increased threat condition designation is based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full intelligence community," said Mr. Ashcroft. "This information has been corroborated by multiple intelligence sources."
Of particular concern, he said, is the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
"Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al-Qaida may attempt to attack Americans in the United States and or abroad in or around the end of the Hajj, a Muslim religious period ending in mid-February," he explained.
Mr. Ashcroft declined to discuss whether the government has information about a specific attack that could already be in the works, pointing instead to recent terrorist bombings that targeted civilians in Bali and Kenya, as well as indications that al-Qaida is working to obtain a chemical, biological or radioactive weapon.
On Thursday, the State Department warned Americans abroad that the threat of such an attack is growing and cautioned U.S. citizens about an increased risk of suicide attacks, assassinations and kidnappings.
"When you put it in that context, it's pretty clear that this is a situation where al-Qaida is going to strike the United States and the interests of free people in other settings," said Mr. Ashcroft.
Appearing before reporters along with the attorney general and FBI Director Robert Mueller was Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was asked what the government expects Americans to do in response to these new warnings.
"For individual Americans, we ask you to remain aware and remain alert," said Mr. Ridge. "We are not recommending that events be canceled or travel or other plans be changed. We do recommend that individuals and families in the days ahead take some time to prepare for an emergency."
He warned that apartment buildings, hotels and other targets with less security than government buildings are now considered vulnerable.
This decision to raise the national terrorist alert level comes as the nation prepares for a possible war against Iraq - and Iraqi threats to strike at American interests if the United States decides to use force in the standoff over Baghdad's alleged weapons programs.