Terror Alert for Financial Buildings in DC, NY, NJ

The Washington Post is reporting today that the Department of Homeland Security has raised the terror alert level to Orange for five financial buildings: the headquarters of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp buildings in New York City, and Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential-Bache building:

The heightened alert, announced by Ridge publicly at 2 p.m., included a level of detail unprecedented in previous warnings and marks the first time that Homeland Security officials have focused the government’s color-coded threat system on specific geographic areas. The five earlier orange alerts, which indicate a high risk of terrorist attack, have been applied to the nation as a whole, most recently on Dec. 31, 2003.

“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…

U.S. intelligence officials — whose sources of terrorist information are typically more vague and fragmentary — said during briefings with reporters today that the documents related to the latest al Qaeda plot were among the most specific the government had ever received. But they acknowledged that the plans had been in the works for years and contained no specific date for an attack.

In one example of detailed surveillance cited by a senior administration intelligence official, operatives logged the flow of pedestrians outside one of the targeted buildings at midday in the middle of a week. “Fourteen persons pass by every minute” on one side of the block, they concluded.

Other communications focused on security barricades, traffic patterns, the use of sewers as escape routes and the locations of nearby fire and police stations, schools and libraries, officials said. For one building, the potential attackers discussed how visitors must sign a book telling where they are going but “on Sunday there is no security. This is not the case on Saturday.”

John Robb thinks that, if this threat is real, it is likely to be a feint or a secondary action, rather than a strategic strike by al Qaeda. That may be the case; it’s true that al Qaeda has hit financial targets before (the WTC), but if I was a betting man I would bet they did so more for the Towers’ location and symbolic value than to cause economic disruption, and none of these buildings have the same stature as the WTC (only the NYSE comes close).

That said, it’s encouraging to see concrete steps being taken to head a threat off at the pass, instead of just a blanket “terror alert” that gets everybody antsy with no explanation. Here’s hoping they round the conspirators up quickly.