WASHINGTON – U.S. authorities warned Wednesday that recent intelligence indicates that al-Qaida may be plotting a terrorist attack on the subway or other transit systems in New York City during the holidays.
U.S. officials stressed that the intelligence, gathered by the FBI, had not been corroborated and said that there was no indication that the suspected plot had progressed beyond preliminary discussion among operatives linked to al-Qaida.
The warning comes at a time when New York subways and other public transportation systems are jammed with holiday travelers – a scenario that counterterrorism officials long have considered an attractive target for al-Qaida.
A classified intelligence bulletin describing the potential plot was issued Tuesday by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. It was disseminated among state and local law-enforcement agencies, including the New York City Police Department, according to counterterrorism officials.
The bulletin said the FBI had “received a plausible but unsubstantiated report indicating that al-Qaida terrorists in late September may have discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City,” according to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The bulletin went on to say that the discussions “reportedly involved the use of suicide bombers or explosives placed on subway (or) passenger rail systems,” the official said.
U.S. officials declined to elaborate on the source of the intelligence.
Justice Department and counterterrorism officials said that no arrests had been made in connection with the plot and that there was no indication that any of the potential participants had entered the United States.
Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, said the report was issued “as a routine matter” so local law-enforcement officials could make plans for the holiday season.
The FBI and other federal agencies were heavily criticized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks for failing to share intelligence with local authorities.
The bulletin issued Tuesday was part of a system put in place to push more raw intelligence out to local agencies. Last week, a similar warning was issued calling attention to threats to the ferry system in Seattle, officials said.
The government’s color-coded threat-advisory system remained at yellow, or “elevated.” Officials said there was no plan to raise it.
“This is at the talk stage,” the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. “When you start seeing the gathering of materials and travel and placement of people, that’s when things are really far along,” the official said. “This certainly isn’t anywhere near that in terms of maturity.”