Searching for `Dirty Bombs: The U.S. Intelligence Community Fears That Terrorists May Be Planning to Detonate in the United States a Portable Nuclear Device-Courtesy of Saddam Hussein-In a New Round of `Spectacular' Terror Attacks Designed to Outdo Even Those of Sept. 11

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For at least the second time since terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, elite U.S. counterterrorist units have been put on a heightened state of alert in response to intelligence worries that the al-Qaeda network has obtained one or more weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including biological and/or nuclear materials.

Published reports, along with new information obtained by INSIGHT from U.S. intelligence and military sources, point to a growing body of evidence that terrorists associated with and/or sympathetic to Osama bin Laden are planning a significant attack on U.S. soil. Also targeted are allied countries that have joined the worldwide hunt for the radical Muslim cells hell-bent on unleashing new waves of terrorist strikes.

The U.S. government's activation of antiterrorist forces comes as the FBI issued a warning Nov. 14 that a "spectacular" new terrorist attack may be forthcoming--sooner rather than later. This alert, among others about which INSIGHT has learned, coincides with the conclusion by top U.S. intelligence officials that bin Laden is alive and in control of a revitalized al-Qaeda network with new cells operational in the United States. Both the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) conducted tests of a newly surfaced audiotape featuring the international terrorist leader and concluded it is genuine. In the tape, bin Laden promised new attacks.

Concerns about possible terrorist strikes are centered not only on the United States but also on Canada. Canadian officials are worried that there might be a hotbed of terrorist cells planning attacks, as evidenced by Canadian Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay's Sept. 3 hand-delivered directive to Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director Ward Elcock telling him to put the prevention of terrorists from getting their hands on a "dirty bomb" or other nuclear weapon among the highest priorities of Canada's spy service.

The CSIS increasingly has been concerned about extremist Islamic groups operating in Canada that have had dealings with known al-Qaeda operatives, including some of the 9/11 hijackers.

They are mindful that terrorists have entered the United States from Canada with plans to carry out bombings.

Elsewhere, the Australian government issued an unprecedented warning to its citizens that al-Qaeda terrorists there might launch attacks within the next two months. Prime Minister John Howard made the extraordinary declaration recently that he is prepared to make pre-emptive military strikes against terrorists in neighboring Asian countries planning to attack Australia. Australian intelligence agencies also are very worried about the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack using nuclear weapons.

The FBI's latest warnings are unusually dire. They state that bin Laden's terrorist organization may be planning an unprecedented attack to cause "mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma" on a scale far greater than the attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon.

Senior U.S. intelligence analysts who spoke to INSIGHT say they fear such an attack would involve a nuclear device. They say a nuclear dirty bomb is the ideal weapon to accomplish the magnitude of carnage and mayhem of which the FBI has warned. They point to intelligence that indicates a nuclear weapon of some sort already may be in the hands of al-Qaeda, which has or is attempting to deliver the device or devices to terrorists operating here.

"To me, `spectacular' indicates a very serious attack against a very serious target near-term" said former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew Levitt.

CIA Director George Tenet warned in October that "you must make the assumption that al-Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us [again]." Tenet and other senior U.S. national-security officials have stated publicly that al-Qaeda is likely to launch another spectacular attack against the United States. …