WASHINGTON -- Terrorism suspects arrested in Jordan have been linked to Osama bin Laden's network, but it is premature to connect an Algerian arrested while trying to bring bomb-making equipment into Washington state to the exile Saudi's organization, a senior Clinton administration official said today.
The bin Laden group is very loose-knit, and while there is an ongoing investigation of Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam, "for people to jump to conclusions is very premature," said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is telling Americans all over the world it believes terrorists may target them from now through mid-January, especially at holiday gatherings and millennial celebrations.
Airport security is being tightened, and manhunts are under way for up to three people suspected of ties to Ressam, who was arrested Dec. 14 after arriving in Port Angeles, Wash., after crossing the border from Canada, and for a California man said to have ties to a terrorist network headed by bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa last year.
Michael Sheehan, coordinator of the State Department's office to counter terrorism, said the government is carefully balancing two competing requirements. "One is to share information we have regarding threats in a prudent manner, and the other is not to be overly alarmist so as to unnecessarily frighten the American people, especially those who are traveling abroad," Sheehan said in an interview.
"This is a very tough balance to strike," he said.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said today that the threat of terrorism is being carefully monitored worldwide.
"All of our intelligence agencies are cooperating worldwide with their counterparts, and so there is a sharing of intelligence to make sure that we have the latest possible information to make sure that we can deter and detect and discourage any attempts on American lives anywhere in the world," Cohen said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Cohen warned that "there are some groups out there that seem determined to ruin the holiday if they can and to kill Americans and others if they can." He urged Americans to be "on the lookout for suspicious activity, but to basically carry through their plans...."
The stepped-up warning Tuesday night from the State Department, the second in 11 days, said the arrest of 13 suspects in Jordan may have forestalled attacks on hotels, tour buses and tourist sites in the Arab kingdom.
"We cannot rule out the possibility that attacks still may be planned for this and other parts of the world," a department statement said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said travelers at U.S. airports should expect tightened security precautions, including stricter enforcement of parking regulations.
The agency said it would make more use of devices to check airline passengers for small traces of explosives and additional bomb-sniffing dogs and uniformed police would patrol airports as the new year approaches.
The new warning to Americans was stated clearly: "The U.S. government believes that terrorists may be planning to conduct attacks, including against official and non-official Americans, in and around the New Year period, from now through mid-January 2000."
In another development, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press they were searching for as many as three people who may have been accomplices to Ressam, who allegedly tried to enter the United States with nitroglycerin and other potential bomb-making materials in his car on a false passport.
In Vermont, U.S. Border Patrol officers said they had arrested two people Sunday at a border station at Beecher Falls. One was an Algerian national with a falsified Canadian passport; the other was a Canadian woman. A clerk at the U.S. District Court in Burlington identified them as Bouabide Chamchi and Lucia Garofalo.
Dogs sniffed out traces of what could be explosives in the car that carried them, officials said. But searches of the car turned up nothing more.
Mark Henry, assistant chief of the Border Patrol sector covering Vermont, said he knew of no link between the Washington state incident and the attempted entry in Vermont.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said there was "credible information" about potential terrorist threats abroad, and that Americans should stay in touch with U.S. embassies and consulates.
An earlier worldwide caution was issued Dec. 11.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities were looking for a 31-year-old U.S. citizen from California with ties to bin Laden.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the Defense Department last week sent to U.S. military commanders worldwide two advisories highlighting State Department cautions about terrorist threats against Americans abroad.
U.S. embassies also stepped up safety measures. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing asked the Chinese government to increase security around the embassy, the ambassador's residence and the four consulates elsewhere in China, spokesman Bill Palmer said, although he added that the embassy knew of "no China-specific threat."
Also Tuesday, Federal Election Commission employees in Washington were told to evacuate their building shortly after 5 p.m. because of a threat directed against the FBI building across the street, FEC spokeswoman Sharon Snyder said. The FBI denied there was a problem.