Possible al-Qaida terror threats around Election Day investigated

WASHINGTON — U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security officials say they are aggressively investigating intelligence suggesting the al-Qaida terror group may be plotting to launch attacks in New York, Virginia and Texas before Tuesday’s presidential election.

But so far, officials have not been able to confirm a credible plot in any of the locations.

Authorities familiar with the allegations indicate the threat originated from signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepted overseas. A law enforcement source tells WTOP “chatter was picked up from alleged al-Qaida supporters suggesting attacks in those locations might be attempted.”

SIGINT is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars and weapons systems.

A senior law enforcement official told WTOP “Washington is in a slightly elevated counterterrorism posture.”

The official said authorities are “engaging with human intelligence sources, checking with confidential informants about information they might have heard and scrubbing social media posts from known terror operatives” for any possible clues.

Counterterrorism authorities in New York have been carefully watching a number of developments including closed circuit television footage of a suspicious male, spotted taking pictures outside of a school in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

A source told WTOP that authorities in Texas conducted a confidential briefing on the alleged plots early Friday, Nov. 4, to discuss the threat.

Joint Terrorism Task Force teams in all three states are said to be working to track down all pertinent leads.

In the process, authorities are making a concerted effort to interview anyone who may have actionable information, according to the senior law enforcement official. The official suggests the aggressive tempo will continue throughout the weekend, up to and through Election Day.

There are more than 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces at work across the country in partnership with state and local law enforcement to prevent attacks in the homeland.

A part of the reason authorities are not dismissing the threat is al-Qaida’s historical interest in launching attacks on significant dates.

“We are aware of alleged threats in recent press reports,” said a Department of Homeland Security official.

To put the threat into context, the official repeated a warning the agency issued months ago.

“As we have long said, in this environment, homegrown violent extremists could strike with little or no notice. Our concern that violent extremists could be inspired to conduct attacks inside the U.S. has not diminished,” the DHS official said.

In a statement, the Washington Field office of the FBI said, “The FBI and DHS, working with our federal, state and local counterparts, share and assess intelligence on a daily basis and will continue to work closely with law enforcement and intelligence community partners to identify and disrupt any potential threat to public safety.”

Even though only three states were allegedly mentioned in the intercepted communication, law enforcement and intelligence agencies across the country have been alerted.

“While we do not comment on intelligence matters, we will say the counterterrorism and homeland security communities remain vigilant and well-postured to defend against attacks here in the United States,” said a U.S. intelligence official.

According to the intelligence official, “the public should expect to continue to observe an increased law enforcement and security presence across communities in public places. Our law enforcement community also continues to take action against those who attempt to engage in activities that could put Americans at risk.”

Mike Maness, a former CIA officer, who conducted covert operations against terrorists, told WTOP there are always terrorist plots being uncovered in the U.S.

“Most are handled quietly via our intelligence and law enforcement agencies and do not make the news,” Maness said.

U.S. officials have warned several times in recent months that locations with minimal security or “soft targets” might be targeted by terror groups.

“Polling places are natural soft-targets for a terror organization. An attack could result in high causalities, and have political/psychological impacts on the U.S. — both of which are objectives laid out by terror groups. If the target were a Jewish school that also happens to be a polling station, then you have the trifecta,” said Maness, now Director of Trapwire Inc.

U.S. authorities still have not determined if the threat is credible.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up