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U.S Warns of Possible Hijacking Plots
U.S. Warns of Possible Hijacking Plots

By JOHN J. LUMPKIN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security has told airlines and law enforcement agencies that al-Qaida may attempt new suicide hijackings sometime during the next few months.

The vague warning came from information gleaned from interviews of at least one al-Qaida prisoner as well as intercepted communications, said one intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The information was developed in the last few weeks.

"We continue to investigate this information to determine its level of credibility," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

There was no specific information on any potential targets, nor did officials know who in al-Qaida might attempt any attacks. The officials said al-Qaida could launch strikes in the United States or Europe. There was no specific date, only a general sense that an attack could take place in the late summer, officials said.

"The intelligence community continues to receive information about al-Qaida's interest in using the commercial aviation system," Johndroe said. "Because of this the Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory this weekend to the nation's airlines and law enforcement personnel."

FBI (news - web sites) director Robert Mueller did not mention the new warnings in a speech in Arlington, Va. before about 1,000 police officers, firefighters and others who would be among the first to respond in an attack. Mueller said the United States is safer today than it was on Sept. 11, but a threat of terrorism still remains.

"The challenge for us is to recognize the threat is continuous out there and to do everything we can to prevent the next attack," Mueller said. "The oceans that separate the United States are not sufficient to prevent other attacks."

The warning was not provided to the general public, but officials acknowledged its distribution in response to queries.

"We advised airline and law enforcement personnel to take a look at all their practices and initiate additional measures they may feel are necessary," Johndroe said.

The information points toward a Sept. 11-style attack using hijacked planes as weapons, rather than a traditional hijacking, officials said.

The national terrorist threat level remains at yellow, signifying an elevated risk of attacks. There was no immediate sign that officials would raise it to orange, signifying a higher risk. The highest alert status is red.

Congress, which ordered an overhaul of aviation security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, recently acted to fill some holes in the system.

House and Senate negotiators last week approved an agreement to arm cargo pilots as part of a Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) funding bill, a written copy of which only became available recently.

Congress last year voted to give weapons to passenger airline pilots but not their counterparts on cargo planes. The first 44 airline pilots were trained to use weapons in the cockpit in April and an undisclosed number of pilots were trained this month.

The bill also would require that:

_ Commercial airlines carry out programs to train flight crews on how to deal with terrorists, including self-defense;

_ The Department of Homeland Security would establish security programs for charter flights that weigh 12,500 and above;

_ Homeland Security and the FAA would have to review security at facilities that repair and maintain aircraft outside the United States and prohibit them from fixing U.S. planes if they pose a security risk.

The bill also would lift a congressionally imposed cap of 45,000 full-time airport security screeners.

Lawmakers are expected to pass the bill in September.

Separately, the House and Senate have approved versions of bills to require inspections of cargo aboard passenger planes.
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