WASHINGTON - The United States has "credible intelligence from multiple sources" that al-Qaida is determined to launch an attack in the United States in the next few months that could be linked to events such as an upcoming international economic summit and the summer political conventions, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday.
Speaking at a Justice Department news conference, Ashcroft said the intelligence, together with recent public statements attributed to al-Qaida, "suggest that it is almost ready to attack the United States."
"This disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaida's specific intention to hit the United States hard," Ashcroft said.
In particular, Ashcroft said, seven people being sought by the United States "all present a clear and present danger to America. All should be considered armed and dangerous."
The warning was not accompanied by an increase in the U.S. terror alert status, however.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who appeared with Ashcroft, cited a "heightened threat to United States' interests around the world. ....We do not know what form the threat might take."
The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq due to the political repercussions of the March 11 train bombings in Spain, Ashcroft added, could lead al-Qaida to attempt to influence U.S. politics.
The sudden warning returns the nation's attention to terrorism, the issue that President Bush has highlighted as a central theme of his re-election campaign, after intense focus on other subjects like Iraq and prisoner abuses in Iraq. Bush has lost ground in the polls, falling in approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency.
The intelligence does not contain specifics such as timing, method or place of an attack. But officials say it is highly credible and backed with greater corroboration than usual, including information that operatives may already be in the United States.
Mueller and Ashcroft drew new attention to enlarged photos of seven suspected al-Qaida operatives that the FBI has been pursuing for months. They include Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native who once lived in Florida, and Aafia Siddiqui, a woman from Pakistan who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We are not aware of details of a plan," Ashcroft said when pressed for specifics.
The attorney general said recent intelligence indicates that al-Qaida operatives now may be traveling with their families to attract less suspicion and that the terror network has been seeking recruits "who can portray themselves as European."
He portrayed the "ideal al-Qaida operative" as an individual in the late 20s or early 30s.
To focus on the threat, the FBI has established a 2004 Threat Task Force and FBI analysts are reviewing previously collected intelligence to see if it contains any clues to the latest threat. There will also be a series of interviews conducted by the FBI with individuals who could have information about potential plots.
Earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said there are no current plans to lift the national alert status from yellow, where it has stood since January. That's the midlevel alert level on a five-step warning program.
"First of all, every day we take a look at the overall threat reporting that we receive," Ridge said on NBC's "Today Show."
"There's not a consensus within the administration that we need to raise the threat level. ... We do not need to raise the threat level to increase security. Right now, there's no need to put the entire country on a (elevated) national alert," he said.
Asked whether Ridge's comment suggested a difference of opinion between his office and Ridge's, Ashcroft told reporters: "I believe we're all on the same page."
Mueller said that "extraordinary precautions" already were being taken to protect the sites of the two political conventions - the Democratic convention in Boston in late July and the Republican convention in New York in late August - as well as next month's Group of Eight economic summit on Sea Island in Georgia.
Some law enforcement and firefighter union representatives, supporters of Democrat John Kerry for president, suggested that the timing of the threat report was suspicious because of polls showing a sagging approval rating for President Bush. International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger told reporters in a conference call that the intelligence has been in the government's hands for weeks.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, however, denied that there is a political aspect to the threat report.
"The president believes it's very important to share information appropriately," McClellan said. "We do that in a number of ways when it comes to looking at the threats we face here in the homeland."