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Airport security lax at small airports

U.S. officials are concerned that terrorists could use small airports in Europe or Latin America to sneak weapons onto U.S.-bound aircraft.

American security officials have gone the next step in trying to head off any terrorist attack: they will notify international air carriers of their concerns about specific flights - and then require those airlines to put armed guards on board the flight.

Today's action came as Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge warned the higher, orange alert level will not be lowered anytime soon. But airline security is uneven, at best - especially in the smaller cities around the world. And that's a major worry for U.S. officials who tell NBC News there is great concern that terrorists could take advantage of lax security at secondary airports in europe and Latin get weapons on international flights headed for the US.

Former Israeli airport secuirty chief Rafi Ron says “There are some airports - maybe even I could say MANY airports - around the world that do not exercise [a] reasonable level of security.”

That jeopardizes flights to the US...because under current procedures, for example, a passenger who goes thru security screening in Nice, France and flies to Paris is not automatically re-screened before boarding a second flight to the United States. The same security risk applies to flights inside the U.S, says NBC News analyst and terrorism expert Stephen Emerson, "There is no doubt that smaller feeder airports are not always up to the same standards as the larger airports.”

And the Israeli security expert asserts that Al Qaida and other terror groups know how to exploit these gaps,  “The enemy understands very, very well where our weaknesses are,” he says.

Tonight, also new information on potential targets: US officials tell NBC that concerns about a possible attack on Las Vegas over New Years are based both on intercepted Al Qaeda conversations...and on intelligence analysis.

Along the flight path from Paris to Los Angeles, among the most spectacular potential targets is Las Vegas, with the highest concentration of hotel rooms in the world. Today, Nevada asked the FAA to close the airspace over the strip on New Years Eve.

Further fueling concerns is a CIA analysis done after 911... and first reported by NBC News last week. It found that well over a dozen Al Qaeda operatives are trained pilots.