WASHINGTON — U.S. counterterrorism officials are chasing a credible but unconfirmed al-Qaida threat to use a car bomb on bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington. It was the first word of an "active plot" timed to coincide with the somber commemoration of the terror group's 9/11 attacks a decade ago that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Counterterrorism officials were investigating the threat throughout the night and into Friday, as police in New York and Washington said they would increase their already stepped-up staffing levels in light of the recent intelligence.
This latest threat "should not surprise any of us," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a speech in New York. Telling the public "is intended to enlist the millions and millions of New Yorkers and Americans to be the eyes and the ears of vigilance," she said.
Law enforcement officials were pursuing three people who may be traveling to the U.S. or who have recently entered the country, based on the detailed information received by the U.S. intelligence community late Wednesday, officials said. The intelligence suggested that al-Qaida planned to car bomb one of the two cities that were hit 10 years ago.
Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that there was no confirmation that anyone had traveled into the U.S. for such a plot though the tip came from a credible source. "There's no certitude," he said.
"The thing we are all most worried about is what they call a 'lone ranger,' a lone actor, not some extremely complicated plan like it took to take down the World Trade towers," said Biden, who appeared on the trio of network morning TV shows Friday.
A U.S. official said the source of the terror tip indicated that al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was involved in planning the plot. But the official also said that many in the intelligence community question that and other aspects of the source's information.
The nation's terror alert level has not changed, but raising it was under consideration Thursday night.
The officials described the threat to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
Security has been enhanced around the country in the weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a date officials have long known could draw an attack. Law enforcement officials have been particularly wary after information gleaned from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan indicated that al-Qaida had considered attacking the U.S. on this anniversary and other important American dates. Officials have also been concerned that terrorists would see the anniversary as an opportunity to retaliate against the U.S. for killing bin Laden in a military raid in May.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a joint intelligence bulletin Thursday night to law enforcement around the country urging them to maintain increased security and be on the lookout for suspicious activity.
The threat came in a single piece of information and was so specific — and came at such a time of already heightened alert — that it could not be ignored, officials said.
"There is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information," the head of the FBI's New York division, Janice Fedarcyk, said. "As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that police there were deploying additional resources around the city but that New Yorkers should go about their business as usual, and the city's observance of the 2001 attacks will go on as planned.
In Washington, law enforcement officials said they were working 12-hour days indefinitely, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier said unattended cars parked in unusual locations risked being towed.
Briefed on the threat information Thursday morning, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. counterterrorism community to redouble its efforts, a White House official said.
As of late Thursday, there were no plans to change Obama's travel schedule on Sunday in light of the threat, the White House said. The president is scheduled to mark the 9/11 anniversary with stops at New York's ground zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. He also will deliver remarks Sunday night at a memorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Law enforcement officials are checking out all of the details included in the threat, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said.
"No need to panic," King said. "They have not been able to confirm it yet."
Intelligence officials had not seen any specific or credible threats regarding an attack around the anniversary before Wednesday.
Thursday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that there was "a lot of chatter" around the anniversary of the attacks but that there was no information about a specific threat. Napolitano had been briefed on early interpretations of the threat that morning as intelligence officials were still trying to determine the validity of the information. It later became clear that the threat was specific and credible and could not be dismissed, even though it has not been confirmed.