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June 24 2001 at 4:51 AM
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U.S. forces in Persian Gulf region put on highest anti-terrorist alert By John Diamond, Chicago Tribune and other wire reports

WASHINGTON—The United States rushed six ships out of a Mideast port and canceled a Marine Corps exercise in Jordan on Friday after intelligence interceptions raised concerns of an impending terrorist attack.

U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region were placed on "Force Protection Condition Delta," the highest anti-terrorist alert. The move, ordered by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, tripped automatic security steps by the military, including immediately scrambling all Navy ships out of ports in the region.

The State Department also issued a "worldwide caution" urging U.S. citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance abroad. It said the U.S. government has learned that American citizens and interests abroad may be at risk of a terrorist attack from extremist groups.

In its announcement, the State Department noted that it had said in an alert issued last month that American citizens may be the target of a terrorist threat from extremist groups with links to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida organization. The statement noted that in the past, bin Laden and his allies have not distinguished between official and civilian targets. "U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert," it said.

The alert came not from an anonymous phone call but from clandestine intelligence collection, including intercepted electronic communications that indicated a "U.S. target" would be attacked, according to a U.S. official.

The alert came a day after the United States indicted 14 members of a Hezbollah terrorist group for the 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 service members and wounded 372 others. Intelligence officials speculated that the threat may also be related to the upcoming fifth anniversary of the attack on Monday.

Several indications of terrorist activity against U.S. interests in the Mideast have surfaced in recent months, some apparently stemming from Bush administration efforts to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, others related to resentment in the Muslim world over the U.S. military presence in the region.

But Friday’s alert was the most serious in recent memory and the first time the military has been placed on "Delta" status since the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor, Yemen, Oct. 12. The suicide attack carried out by two men operating a small launch, killed 17 sailors and wounded more than twice as many more.

The alert ordered by Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa disrupted U.S. military activities from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia.

In Bahrain, the Navy’s headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet, a destroyer, a support ship and four counter-mine ships put to sea in the Persian Gulf. The rest of the formidable Navy force in the gulf, some 20 warships in the USS Constellation carrier battle group, were already under way.

In Jordan, some 2,000 Marines taking part in an amphibious exercise returned to their ships in the Red Sea port of Aqaba. The Marines were attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. They boarded several amphibious ships led by the USS Boxer, a helicopter carrier.

"The entire CENTCOM area of operations went on the highest state of alert, which means ships that are pierside or hanging around put out to sea to make them less likely targets," said one senior defense official.

The U.S. military is constantly concerned with false alarms, which could disrupt training and routine operations. The defense official said the regional commander must make an assessment and is likely to heighten the level of alert "if it is based on an intercept or information from a known entity or some channels that we have some confidence in."

In the wake of the Cole bombing, the tendency among top U.S. commanders is to err on the side of a higher state of alert.

"This is expensive, and it’s a pain in the butt to go to this level—it definitely cramps everybody," the defense official said.

"We don’t do this lightheartedly, so we have pretty good confidence that something was coming down."

The intelligence gathered by an enormous collection apparatus devoted to tracking bin Laden and his associates did not specify where or when the attack might fall or just what sort of attack would be involved. But U.S. officials have been particularly focused on Bahrain and Yemen.

Bin Laden’s organization is believed by U.S. authorities to have been responsible for the Cole bombing. His group issued a videotape this week that was played widely on Arabic news stations in the region showing bin Laden and images of masked fighters training for commando operations. The Arabic press has carried articles in recent days speculating on possible terrorist activity directed at the U.S.

Intelligence officials said they did not believe the suspected attack plan was geared toward disrupting the scheduled visit to the Mideast next week of Secretary of State Colin Powell, although members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas have a pattern of stepping up activity to discourage U.S. peace efforts.

The Associated Press and Tribune Foreign Correspondent Stephen Franklin contributed to this report

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