Attorney General John Ashcroft, joined by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller, said the decision was “based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full intelligence community.” He added that the information has been “corroborated by multiple intelligence sources.”
Ashcroft said there is a higher risk that members of the al-Qaida terrorist network may mount an attack on American citizens in the U.S. or abroad during the final days of the Muslim holy period of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy Saudi city of Mecca that ends in mid-February.
“Since September the 11th, the U.S. intelligence community has indicated that the al Qaeda terrorist network is still determined to attack innocent Americans, both here and abroad,” the attorney general said.
Ashcroft said al-Qaida has demonstrated “a serious interest” in chemical, biological or radiological weapons.
“Historically, the intelligence community has indicated that al-Qaida might also seek economic targets, including the transportation and energy sectors, as well as symbolic targets and symbols of American power,” Ashcroft said.
He said al-Qaida may also target apartment buildings, hotels or other “soft or lightly guarded targets.”
Both Ashcroft and Ridge said that Americans do not need to alter their plans or work schedules, but should remain aware of suspicious activity and should “takes some time to prepare for an emergency.”
“Take the time to get informed,” Ridge said. “In the eventuality or the possibility that something might happen, you’re taking some steps to minimize the damage.”
Ridge said that federal, state and local homeland security officials, as well as medical and emergency first-responders, have been notified of the alert level change and “will be taking action as well.”
The orange level is the second-highest setting on the five-level Homeland Security Advisory System.
According to the presidential directive establishing the alert system, federal officials are instructed during an orange state of alert to coordinate additional security efforts with state and local law enforcement, or “any National Guard or other appropriate armed forces organizations.”
Officials are also supposed to take additional precautions at public events, possibly moving or canceling events deemed particularly risky. The directive also says that officials should prepare to move or evacuate affected work forces and restrict any threatened facilities to allow only essential personnel.
The system has been set at yellow, signifying an “elevated” attack risk, for the majority of the time since it was implemented in March 2002. It was raised to the orange level on Sept. 10 ahead of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, but returned to yellow two weeks later.
The move comes a day after the State Department issued a worldwide caution warning of a higher risk of terrorist groups using chemical or biological weapons on Americans. The caution said Americans traveling abroad should exercise caution and remain aware of their surroundings.
“While conventional weapons such as explosive devices pose a more immediate threat in many areas overseas, terrorist use of non-conventional weapons, including chemical or biological agents, must be considered a growing threat,” the department said in a statement.