It is likely that New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, DC have been put on Orange Alert, the second highest of the Department of Homeland Security's confusing color codes, on the basis of information gathered during the arrest of a reputed al-Qaeda computer engineer in Pakistan on 13 July.
Captive Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan is described as a communications specialist for the infamous terror network, working out of Pakistan, and using computer technology and the Internet to relay information among the group's players. He served as something of a communications hub, according to reports.
The New York Times claims that Khan had "told investigators that most of al-Qaeda's communications were now done through the Internet, the official said. After a message was sent and read by the recipient, the entire communication and related files were deleted to maintain secrecy, he said. Mr. Khan had told investigators that e-mail addresses were generally not used more than a few times."
There has been no mention of any sort of computer-based attack, such as a mass virus outbreak or DDoS, however. So far, the forces of evil appear to be using computer technology and network infrastructure just as anyone else might do - that is, as a convenience, and not as a target in itself.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that security has been beefed up at the New York Stock Exchange and at several buildings owned by Citigroup, at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, and at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.
"The quality of this intelligence based on multiple reporting streams in multiple locations, is rarely seen, and it is alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information," Ridge said.
However, al-Qaeda captives have been responsible for a good deal of false "intelligence," such as that provided by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who has since retracted his claims that Saddam Hussein's government had provided training in the use of chemical weapons to the terror outfit. It was al-Libi's information that led US President George W. Bush to announce that Iraq had provided training in "poisons and gases" to al-Qaeda, an assertion that has since been discredited.
It is believed that Khan's computer contained data indicating that al-Qaeda operators have been carefully assessing the security strengths and weaknesses of these sites in preparation for an explosives attack. Some of the information dates to before 9/11, officials have said. It is not clear whether any of the information recently obtained relates to current or future schemes.
Terror suspect Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted for the US embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, was arrested last week. According to reports, information on his computer is corroborated by information on Khan's computer.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured residents that the city is prepared. "We have ramped up security even further at the named locations as well as at other potential targets," Bloomberg said. He vowed to "spare no expense" in protecting civilians.
Numerous new inconveniences are in now place. Parking and traffic patterns have been restricted in the areas surrounding these and other potential target sites, and the Holland Tunnel has been closed to incoming commercial vehicles. Heavily armed police have been dispatched to the sites, to give the public a reassuring show of force.
There have been reports that the UK is also a target, but no special security measures have been announced thus far. It is possible that merely by revealing some knowledge of these plots, officials have discouraged al-Qaeda from pursuing them further. ®