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Officials: Super Bowl 'a desirable target' for terrorists

U.S. counterterrorism and law enforcement officials have concluded that the Super Bowl’s high profile "could make it a desirable target” for terrorists.
/ Source: NBC News

A team of U.S. counterterrorism and law enforcement officials recently prepared a nine-page “threat assessment” for Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Their conclusion: There are “no credible terrorist threats” to this year’s game. But its high profile “could make it a desirable target.” And there remain several “scenarios of concern” due in part to al-Qaida’s recent history of attacks on major overseas sporting events, according to a copy of the assessment obtained by NBC News.

Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano flew to Dallas and announced a public relations initiative aimed at heightening vigilance among the public in the run up to the game at Cowboys Stadium. “If you SEE something, SAY something,” read the ads, unveiled by Napolitano and NFL security chief Milt Ahlerich at a press conference.

As America's premier sporting event, the Super Bowl always attracts special attention from security officials. The NFL alone spends about $6 million on Super Bowl security. The Homeland Security Department consider the game a Level One security event — an official designation that enables the federal government to provide million of dollars in extra law enforcement and technical support, including sophisticated surveillance equipment, to assist local authorities screen vehicles entering the stadium and monitor crowd movements. As in past years, air space over the game will be restricted and policed by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

But there are several reasons this year’s game is getting somewhat extra attention, officials say. One is that former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura are attending, guests of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. (President Barack Obama had at one point indicated he might come as well if the Chicago Bears had prevailed in their NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers.)

There is also an overall threat environment that continues to concern counterterrorism officials even if they are sometimes reluctant to talk about it publicly. As reported by WNBC’s Jonathan Dienst earlier this week, officials recently briefed top executives of major Wall Street firms about intelligence indicating that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group’s Yemen-based affiliate, might be planning an attack on New York financial interests. “There’s an overall uptick and worry about AQAP,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official, who asked not to be identified.

Officials stressed repeatedly this week that there is no intelligence indicating AQAP or any other al-Qaida affiliate has targeted the Super Bowl.  But the Homeland Security threat assessment — labeled “for official use only” — takes nothing for granted. It outlines a number of “scenarios of concern” that could disrupt the game. (The assessment was prepared by officials from seven federal, state and local agencies, including Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, the U.S. Northern Command and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.)

In the past year alone, it notes, there have been at least two al-Qaida-linked suicide bomber attacks on sporting events overseas: On May 14, three al-Qaida suicide bombers detonated explosive devices as spectators were leaving a soccer game in Tal Afar, Iraq, killing ten and wounding 120 people. On July 11, al-Shabab suicide bombers in Kampala Uganda, attacked two places where fans had gathered to watch broadcasts of the World Cup final, killing nearly 80 people. There were also reported threats by al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based terror group, against the Commonwealth Games last October in New Delhi, India, although none took place.

The Super Bowl threat assessment mentions — in addition to suicide bomber attacks — several other possible attack scenarios, including the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in or near Cowboys Stadium and small arms attacks such as that carried out by the Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. The assessment notes that the October 2010 edition of Inspire, the English language web magazine published by AQAP, urged U.S.-based readers to emulate the Fort Hood shooter by conducting small arms attacks.  It also mentions as yet another scenario “a vehicular attack,” noting that the same edition of Inspire contained another article called “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” detailing a plan to use a four wheel-drive pickup truck outfitted with steel blades to attack pedestrian targets in crowded public places.

The threat assessment also cites a number of recent past incidents — although not terrorist related — that could suggest security lapses at Cowboys stadium. Last September, a man claiming to be the team doctor for a high school football team passed through security at Cowboys Stadium without any credentials. (It was later determined he used the same ruse to sneak into the Cotton Bowl for a game in September and wound up at the command post.) Just last month, on two separate occasions, several suspects gained access to Cowboys Stadium using counterfeit media passes that were being sold on Craigslist. These vents “serve to highlight the potential risk posed to Super Bowl XLV by individuals breaching security using false media credentials,” the assessment states.

Could al-Qaida terrorists use the same ruse to pose as sportswriters and get access to this Sunday’s game?

Not very likely, said Tiara Ellis Richard, spokeswoman for the Arlington, Texas police department, which has primary jurisdiction over Cowboys Stadium. The media credentialing system for the Super Bowl is far more stringent than for regular season Cowboys games, she said, with media pass holders required to provide proof of who they are to receive specially coded passes with holograms.