msnbc.com news services
updated 8/14/2004 6:00:02 AM ET 2004-08-14T10:00:02

Al-Qaida may attempt to launch attacks in U.S. cities using helicopters or rented limousines packed with explosives as weapons, the FBI said in two nationwide bulletins.

The warnings come amid reports that data confiscated in Pakistan indicates al-Qaida has studied using those, as well as speedboats and divers, as tools in a potential attack on New York City.

One of the FBI bulletins, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, said terrorists could attempt to hijack commercial, charter or tourist helicopter flights and use them in suicide attacks against buildings, parades or sporting events.

Helicopters and limousines could both help terrorists get closer to targeted buildings, the FBI warnings said. The warnings were sent Friday night by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, other government officials and private groups.

Although the Bush administration’s recent heightened terror alert was confined to financial institutions in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, the FBI said al-Qaida was interested in using helicopters to attack “any densely populated area of symbolic, economic or financial importance” in the United States.

The FBI said it has information that indicates al-Qaida has considered using helicopters packed with explosives in an unspecified attack.

Helicopters might also be used to spread chemical or biological agents in the ventilation systems of high-rise buildings, the FBI bulletin said. “Terrorists may view helicopters as an attractive weapon due to their maneuverability and nonthreatening appearance when flying at low altitudes,” the FBI said.

The other bulletin warns that al-Qaida has frequently used rented cars and trucks for bomb attacks in the past — including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center — and may do so again.

Limousines, the FBI said, could be especially useful to terrorists because they are larger than regular cars and might draw less suspicion than trucks.

“Limousines often convey an impression of authority or prestige, which may facilitate their access to specific locations in a building or a facility denied to the general public,” the FBI bulletin said.

The FBI says it has no credible, specific evidence about the method, timing or location of any al-Qaida attack inside the United States. But the bulletins come amid a steady stream of intelligence indicating that the terror group intends to strike in the months leading to the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Laptop, disks reveal strategy
The warnings surfaced as Time magazine, quoting an unidentified U.S. law enforcement official, said that included in information obtained on three laptop computers and 51 disks seized in a July 24 raid in Pakistan were details of how al-Qaida operatives thought of using speed boats and divers to carry out attacks in New York harbor before the November elections.

The plotters also were considering the use of helicopters in some New York operations, the report said.

Video: Time also reported that an al-Qaida report was found suggesting the use of a limousine instead of a truck or van to blow up the Prudential building in Newark. The report suggested a limo would be allowed to enter the parking structure more easily.

The New York Times, citing U.S. security officials, reported Monday that a new directive will call for increased security measures for helicopter operators in the New York City area.

Among the measures under review is a requirement to screen passengers for suspicious items, a Department of Homeland Security official who was briefed on the plan told the newspaper. No groundings are planned, the Times said, adding that the new directive could be issued as early as this week.

New York tourist helicopters operate out of three main heliports. A domestic security official said concern about helicopters is “restricted to New York right now.”

Tourist helicopters still flying
The tourist helicopters continued to operate Monday.  “We’re all here and we’re all together,” said Gisele Dorte of Martinique, who boarded a Liberty Helicopter Tours chopper with her family.

Officers were stationed outside Liberty Helicopter Tours, located on the Hudson River, but otherwise no extra security measures appeared to be in force.

Liberty Helicopter officials declined to answer questions. But a pilot who would not give his name said security measures including metal detectors have been in place since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Law enforcement officials in New York said the only report they had received linking helicopters to potential terror attacks was that evidence recovered in Pakistan showed terror suspects may have taken a helicopter ride to gather information on possible targets.

Some law enforcement experts believe that with relatively complex controls and smaller payloads than a single-engine plane, helicopters make an unlikely tool for terrorism, officials said.

“There’s indication they’ve looked at helicopters but no indications they had plans to use them,” said one law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They had photographed helicopters in New York but there’s still no indication of what they had in mind.”

Plans raise timing question
White House officials on Sunday suggested that some of the potential plots uncovered in the past week may have been part of a broader effort to strike the country before the November election.

Video: “I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it,” Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it? And we’re working through an investigation to uncover that.”

But Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that based on the information he’d seen, he believes the Bush administration may have overstated the immediacy of the threat of an attack.

“I have not seen any hard evidence that there was an active moment that was contemplated in the very near term,” Biden said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “If there was a smoking gun that said we know for certain that was going to occur, I didn’t see it.”

1,000 disks seized in Britain
In cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, authorities in Pakistan and Britain have detained suspected al-Qaida operatives, while computer files uncovered in Pakistan contained surveillance information of five prominent financial sites in New York, Washington and Newark. The administration issued a terror alert based on that information.

The arrests in Britain have led to the confiscation of more than 1,000 computer discs, a senior U.S. intelligence source told the New York Times. The data was still being studied but appears to contain new information that could lead to additional terror advisories, the Times reported.

Townsend said it is not clear how much has been uncovered about a potential plot around the presidential election. “This certainly looks like it was a piece of it,” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Besides the financial sites, counterterrorism officials have said other places have been mentioned as possible targets. Asked whether they included the Capitol and members of Congress, Townsend replied: “Yes, in the past and as part of this continuing threat stream.”

“We may see additional U.S. targets,” she said. “It’s hard to judge that now until we have a better sense of what we see out of Great Britain, Pakistan and this arrest over the weekend in the United Arab Emirates.”

A senior Pakistani al-Qaida operative who formerly ran one of the terror group’s training camps in Afghanistan was arrested in the UAE and has been handed over to Pakistani officials.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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