Friday, July 30, 2004
May Attack in N.M. 'Postponed,' FBI Reports
By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE Authorities say possible elements of al-Qaida might be operating in New Mexico and that efforts by law enforcement agents forced terrorists to "postpone" a May attack in New Mexico or California.
"The attack was, I guess you could say, quashed because of increased security measures that law enforcement and other agencies had taken," FBI special agent Bill Elwell said Thursday. "It became too much of a risk for them to continue."
Elwell said intelligence about the attack "was very nonspecific in scope, in times, dates or location." He said federal agents found out about the attack after May but couldn't say specifically when.
Elwell said he couldn't comment on how law enforcement agents learned of the plan but said intelligence revealed that terrorist elements "had discussed that they had to postpone an attack."
Officials at the New Mexico Department of Public Safety received an unclassified communication from the FBI on Thursday, said spokesman Peter Olson.
The bulletin informed local law enforcement there were possible al-Qaida elements in the state, Olson said, but gave no specific threat information or instructions.
The intelligence report sent to local law enforcement agencies in New Mexico and California doesn't contain a specific warning about a future attack, and Elwell had "nothing definitive" in terms of when the postponed attack might happen, he said.
"We're telling law enforcement to keep vigilant," he said.
The FBI is releasing the information now "to reaffirm them (law enforcement) in their effort. Everyone out there is doing what they need to be doing, our security is working," he said.
Gov. Bill Richardson said there is no evidence that the terror threat level should be raised in New Mexico. The national threat level is at elevated, or yellow, which is at the middle of the five-level system.
"My Homeland Security director is in close contact with the FBI as part of an ongoing effort to counter the threat of terrorist cells in the region," Richardson said in a statement from Boston, where he was presiding over the Democratic National Convention.
For now, New Mexico State Police will continue their routine patrols. They are also patrolling less traveled and more remote roads while state Motor Transportation Division officials keep their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary on the state's highways, Olson said.
In Bernalillo County, sheriff deputies are "doing what they normally do," said Sheriff Darren White.
"It is difficult because there is no specific threat," White said. But he added he would rather have nonspecific intelligence than none at all.
State Homeland Security Adviser Annie Sobel agreed it's tough to know what to do with such a report, but her office is working with federal and state law enforcement agencies to detect and deter any terrorist threats.
"We don't have any actionable intelligence at this point," she said.
Sobel also said she wasn't surprised that authorities only learned about the attack after it supposed to happen.
"The significance of an event sometimes doesn't unfold until that event had been aborted or other intelligence sources make you aware the event didn't occur, that the terror cell decided against it because the timing was bad," said Sobel, a brigadier general in the Air National Guard.
Sobel said the intelligence and law enforcement community needs more people, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While law enforcement officials aren't officially saying what terrorists might want to attack in New Mexico, the state is home to military installations, national research laboratories and miles of oil and gas pipelines.
Spokesmen from the state's military bases said Thursday they weren't aware of specific threats to their facilities and weren't changing security levels in light of the FBI intelligence report.
Bob Gallagher, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said his industry for more than a year has been working with the FBI and the state's Office of Homeland Security to assess security at industry sites.
There have been industry facilities in New Mexico that have been labeled as a risk, Gallagher said, declining to name them.
Analyses of sites across the state have been done and security precautions have been taken, Gallagher said.
"Since energy is the lifeblood of the economy, we have concerns about pipelines, processing and gathering facilities. We have concerns about refineries."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a member of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, urged New Mexicans in a written statement to remain calm.
"Citizens should stay alert, as they have been since Sept. 11, and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement," he said.