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Image: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly speak at a news conference Thursday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/9/2011 11:31:36 AM ET 2011-09-09T15:31:36

Just days before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. counterterrorism officials were chasing a credible but unconfirmed al-Qaida threat to use a car bomb on bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington.

It was the first known "active plot" timed to coincide with the somber commemoration of the terror group's 9/11 attacks a decade ago that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Counterterrorism officials were investigating the threat early Friday, as police in New York and Washington said they would increase their already stepped-up staffing levels in light of the recent intelligence.

An Obama administration official told NBC News Thursday that the threat "so far" was a 5 to 6 on a scale of 10.

Officials emphasized that there was a great deal of uncertainty about the threat and said they were acknowledging it out of an abundance of caution.

Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri may be linked to the threat, but that's highly unlikely, senior officials told NBC News.

"Bin Laden was more involved in al-Qaida operations" than al-Zawahiri has been since he took over as al-Qaida's No. 1, one of the officials said. "He's too busy trying to stay alive."

Still, the White House does believe some element of al-Qaida is behind the threat — just not al-Zawahiri himself.

Barack Obama received another briefing on the potential threat from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan and others Friday morning.

Jay Carney, White House press secretary, told reporters that the president ordered the national security team to double their efforts and take "all necessary precautions," NBC News reported.

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Law enforcement officials have been told to be on the lookout for three men "of Middle Eastern descent" and potentially traveling in a van, NBC News reported.

They may have recently entered the country, based on the detailed information received by the U.S. intelligence community late Wednesday, officials said.

The intelligence suggested that al-Qaida planned to car bomb one of the two cities that were hit 10 years ago.

The information had some specificity and the source has been credible in the past, officials said.

"There is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information," the head of the FBI's New York division, Janice Fedarcyk, said. "As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days."

The nation's terror alert level has not changed, but raising it was under consideration.

Should you worry about traveling on 9/11?

Officials have been concerned that terrorists would see the 9/11 anniversary as an opportunity to retaliate against the U.S. for killing bin Laden in a military raid in May.

However, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rode the subway Friday morning to assure commuters that the city was fully prepared for a potential terror threat.

"We don't want al-Qaida or any other organization ... to take away the freedoms without firing a shot," he said, getting off at the City Hall stop in lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bloomberg urged New Yorkers to just "go back to work. And leave it to the professionals."

'Wreak violence and evil'
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech called "A Smart Power Approach to Counterterrorism" given at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Friday morning, said the threat of terrorist acts in the United States "should not surprise any of us," saying it served as a "reminder of the stakes in our struggle against violent extremism."

"We are taking this threat seriously, federal, state and local authorities are taking all steps to address it," she said. "And of course making it public as it was done yesterday is intended to enlist the millions and millions of New Yorkers and Americans to be the eyes and ears of vigilance."

Video: New 9/11 tapes show confusion and disbelief

"Of course, people should proceed with their lives and do what they would do ordinarily, but ... (also) be part of this great network of unity and support against those who would wreak violence and evil on innocent people," she added.

Clinton added that America would not "shy away from using military force" if necessary against terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.

Terrorism suspects would be detained "humanely" and "when we do strike," the U.S. would seek to protect innocent civilians.

Video: Biden: Americans must ‘be vigilant’ (on this page)

Gail Murray, an administrative assistant who works in Manhattan, took the security threat in stride as she listened to Long Island Rail Road announcements aboard a train heading from Queens Village to Penn Station.

"I thought, 'Here we go again,'" she said. "That's all just part of living in New York City."

She said whether or not she was worried, she would have to take mass transit.

"I don't have the luxury of working from home," she said.

Authorities were stopping vehicles at the 59th Street bridge, which connects Manhattan to Queens, causing a major backup.

Helmets, assault rifles
At Penn Station, transit police in helmets and bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles watched the crowds of commuters.

Officials were swabbing passengers' bags near an escalator to the train platforms, and police searched the bags of passengers at the entrance to a subway station. National Guard troops in camouflaged fatigues moved among the throng, eyeing packages.

Roseanne Lee, 64, said her taxi was stopped twice at police checkpoints on its way from the Upper East Side to Penn Station.

Find out where 9/11's Bob Beckwith is now

Police looked in the windows of the cab but did not question her or the driver, she said. At one checkpoint, police were searching a moving van, she said.

The delays turned a 15-minute ride into a 35-minute one and cost her $21 instead of the usual $12.

"But I don't care," Lee said. "It's better to be safe. You can't stop doing what you're doing because of these threats, you just have to be careful."

Police tours were extended, effectively increasing the strength of the patrol force, and the department prepared to respond to an increase in calls of suspicious packages. They also added more police vehicles with license plate readers.

"There will be increased focus on tunnels and bridges and infrastructure in general, as well as landmark locations, houses of worship and government buildings," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site, was also at a heightened state of alert Friday.

Image: A New York City police officer stops Xiang Mao, left, and Lexi Li near the World Trade Center
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
A New York City police officer stops Chinese tourists Xiang Mao, left, and Lexi Li on Thursday near the World Trade Center.

In Washington, law enforcement officials said they were working 12-hour days indefinitely, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier said unattended cars parked in unusual locations risked being towed.

She said that every one of her 3,800 officers would work at some point during remembrances.

"You'll see mass transit, you'll see restaurants, hotels, sporting events — any place where there's a crowd, we're going to have an increased presence," Lanier said.

Video: Giuliani: ‘I wish I had anticipated’ 9/11 (on this page)

The U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over D.C. landmarks including the National Mall and the Washington Monument, was also on alert.

"We're well aware that this anniversary does bring with it a lot of emotion and concerns, but we're certainly addressing it," said Park Police spokesman David Schlosser.

Obama is scheduled to mark the 9/11 anniversary with stops at New York's ground zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. He also will deliver remarks Sunday night at a memorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

President George W. Bush also plans to attend Sunday's ground zero event.

Kelly, the NYPD's commissioner, said that ground zero would be surrounded by a frozen zone on Sunday. Thousands of cops will be on duty, some carrying sniper rifles. Hundreds of surveillance cameras will monitor the site.

Kelly said quick-reaction forces will be assigned outside lower Manhattan.

Video: George W. Bush reflects on 9/11, ‘fog of war’ (on this page)

Police scuba divers will also examine the USS New York, made of World Trade Center steel, at its West 48th Street dock, Kelly added.

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Already responding to rampaging rivers , Pennsylvania emergency workers say they are preparing for whatever security threats Sept. 11 events may bring.

National Park Service’s Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville will be unveiled Saturday during events that are expected to draw 10,000 people, including Vice President Joe Biden.

Video: Inside the ‘bigger, better' World Trade Center  (on this page)

Cory Angell, a PEMA spokesman, told radio station WHYY the center nearest to the site of the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County will be activated at a Level 2 — meaning key emergency staffers from different state departments will be on duty.

"In the western part of Pittsburgh, of course — Flight 93 and the event that they're having in memory of those lost on 9/11 — being a significant event, that EOC will be activated at a Level 2, as well," he said.

The Flight 93 memorial's website notes that security checkpoints will be located at ceremony entrances, chairs will be permitted but not in bags; coolers are banned.

Among major commemorations:

SATURDAY

8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. - Bill Clinton will speak at this week's dedication of the Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania. The former president will join former President George W. Bush, Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Flight 93 family members at Saturday's event (which runs 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.). Sunday is the 10th anniversary commemoration of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Events will take place 8:30-11 a.m. and 1:50-5 p.m. The events are open to the public, and security is expected to be tight.

http://www.nps.gov/flni/planyourvisit/september-11-2011-weekend.htm
http://www.nps.gov/flni/planyourvisit/sunday-september-11-2011.htm

SUNDAY

8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.: The National September 11 Memorial in New York will be dedicated during a ceremony for victims' families. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush plan to attend. The memorial opens to the public the following day.

http://www.911memorial.org/about-911-ceremony

9:30 a.m.: The Pentagon Memorial will have an invite-only ceremony for families of 9/11 victims at 9:30 am. The Pentagon Memorial will re-open to the general public following the ceremony.

1-4 p.m.: HandsOn Greater DC Cares and Serve DC - the Mayor's Office of Volunteerism will commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by hosting Tribute to Service – Honoring the Victims, Survivors, and Heroes of 9/11 at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, D.C. from 1-4 p.m.

http://pentagonmemorial.org/plan/events/september-11-2011-weekend-events

NBC News, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Police in NY, DC on alert over terror threat

  1. Closed captioning of: Police in NY, DC on alert over terror threat

    >>> good evening. this is the kind of thing americans hear and then they wonder what they're supposed to think and how they're supposed to act. last night just as the president was preparing to speak to the joint session of congress . just as we're preparing for the tenth anniversary of the worst day in modern american history , we learned of another terrorist threat and as only the people in government and law enforcement can put it, we were told it was, quote, specific and credible, but unconfirmed. well, we have learned more since, but whatever it is, it caused the streets of new york and washington to be flooded with police and vehicles, some cops with visible automatic weapons, and that feeling in the population centers of being on edge is back. but of course it never really went away over this past decade. pete williams , our justice correspondent is at the accident of homeland security tonight.

    >> reporter: brian, police and federal agents in washington and in new york were able to ramp up quickly in response to this intelligence because they were already planning more robust security around the 9/11 anniversary. police were out in force and posting extra security on bridges and tunnels, clogging the morning and afternoon commutes. similar scenes in washington as both cities jumped to respond to an unconfirmed report from an intelligence source in pakistan who heard that three men, no full names given, flew to the u.s. to set off car or truck bombs in new york or washington this weekend. something that stood out in the flow of intelligence because the source had been reliable in the past.

    >> this is the first, first credible piece of information we have gotten. we cannot confirm it. we are doing everything within our power, all hands are on deck.

    >> reporter: new york 's mayor michael bloomberg and washington 's mayor called for vigilance.

    >> if you see something suspicious, call 9/11.

    >> the fbi and border officials scrambled to search travel records going back weeks that might confirm any signs that three such men did in fact fly to the u.s. from the middle east . police and federal agents also checked dealers who sell chemicals that can be used to make car bombs , expanding an effort already underway because of the 9/11 anniversary. the intelligence source at this spot originated with al qaeda 's leader ayman al zawahri . and some wonder if this plot was real or not.

    >>> and with this added tension, we did not need something that happened to us late today. i want to read you a statement from our company, it reads, quote, the nbc news twitter account was hacked late this afternoon. and as a result, false reports of a plane attack on ground zero were sent to followers. we are working with twitter to correct the situation, we sincerely apologize for the scare that could have been caused by such a reckless and irresponsible act.

Photos: Remains of the day

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  1. Nancy Nee, George's sister

    A heavily dented and damaged mass hardly recognizable as the helmet it once was. Thinking about how powerful the destructive force must have been still makes her lose her breath. “George was such a tall, strong man’,’ says Nancy Nee. And yet looking at the black relic brings her a certain measure of peace. Her brother George Cain was a firefighter to the core and the helmet was an integral part of his life. On Sept. 11, George helped evacuate hundreds of guests from the Marriott Hotel, close to the World Trade Center. When the towers collapsed, he did not stand a chance. The hotel was destroyed, but most of the guests survived. To this day, her children miss their uncle very much, says Nancy. She still hasn’t shown her two youngest the helmet.

    Captions by Giuseppe di Grazia and Martin Knobbe / stern Magazine
    Translation by Anuschka Tomat (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Myrta Gschaar, Robert’s Wife

    Maybe he did manage to get out of the South Tower after all. Maybe he is wandering around not knowing who he is. For years, these thoughts haunted Myrta Gschaar. She did not abandon hope, until the day authorities informed her that her husband’s wallet had been recovered. When she went to the police station to pick it up, she saw the two-dollar bill. Myrta Gschaar felt dizzy and the policemen needed to keep her from falling. It was one of the two-dollar bills with which Robert had proposed to Myrta. They had promised each other to always carry theirs with them. When Myrta had recovered, she placed the slightly charred note next to her undamaged one. She moved them toward each other as if they were about to kiss for the last time. Or the first. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bradley Burlingame, Charles’ brother

    The poem’s words are still clearly legible: “Don’t stand at my grave crying. I am not here. I did not die.” This sentence was printed on the reverse side of the funeral card for Patricia Burlingame. Her son Charles always carried it with him, just as he did on the day that terrorists hijacked the plane he was flying. Flight AA 77 crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., at 9:37 am. Sixty-four people on the plane and 125 more inside the building died. Knowing that his brother had the funeral card on him is a comforting thought for Brad Burlingame. Just as comforting, that he likely died a hero. The flight data analysis showed that 30 minutes after takeoff, the air carrier suddenly started an erratic flight pattern. For Brad, it indicates a struggle in the cockpit. “Charles was a former Navy pilot. He defended his plane and his passengers until the very end.” (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Erich Bay, Lorraine’s husband

    Lorraine Bay was supposed to be back home from her United Airlines flight on Wednesday night. On the evening of Sept. 12th, the flight attendant planned to celebrate her husband's birthday. Half a year later in their house, Erich found the presents Lorraine had bought for him: two shirts and two belts. It took Erich a long time before he mustered the strength to enter Lorraine’s room. And it took him even longer before he was able to open the box that contained her belongings that had been recovered from the area where her plane crashed in Pennsylvania. In it, he found a pair of sandals Lorraine had packed for the late summer weather. Her wedding band was slightly melted and it was missing a stone. The ring remains Erich’s most important memento of his wife. He gave Lorraine’s earrings to one of his nieces, but he will keep the wedding band until he dies. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Joseph and Samia Iskandar, Waleed’s parents

    Three frequent flyer cards and a debit card are all that remained of their son. Recovery workers at Ground Zero found neither his body nor any parts of it Thus, the parents placed the four cards along with a photo of their son in a niche in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles. The plastic is the only remembrance of the last day of Waleed Iskandar's life. The youngest of three children, he was born in Lebanon and raised in Kuwait. He graduated from Stanford and Harvard. In his job as a consultant and in his leisure time with his girlfriend, Nicolette, he flew more than 400,000 miles a year. He was sitting in the window seat in row 34 when the plane crashed into the North tower. His parents, Joseph and Samia Iskandar, hope that maybe “he did not exactly know what was going on in the cockpit.” (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Nelly Braginsky, Alexander’s mother

    Alexander Braginsky had immediately accepted an invitation by his employer, the news agency Reuters, to an 8:30 am business breakfast at Windows on the World on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. Fifteen minutes later, a Boeing 767 crashed into the North Tower. “If he had only stayed in his office, if he had only been less keen on learning new things,” says his mother. Braginsky, however, wanted to know everything and he happily shared his knowledge. On the evening of the day he died, he was scheduled to hold a lecture in front of immigrants. He himself was an immigrant, who came to the U.S. from Odessa, Ukraine, when he was 15 years old. Ever since, he had helped others navigate the exciting metropolis of New York. For a long time, the wallet had been the only memory of her son that Nelly Braginsky could hold in her hands. Just this past April, she learned that a bone fragment had been found. Finally, she was able to bury Alexander. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Betzy Parks, Robert's sister

    To his sister, he was the man who wrote letters. He sent her a greeting card when she graduated from High School. He sent her encouraging words when she left for England to pursue her studies and later when she traveled Europe. Writing letters was his way of showing his affection. Thus, Betzy Parks knew immediately that she had found the perfect gift for her brother Robert when she spotted a silvery letter opener in a bazaar in Mexico in 1991. He had kept it on his desk ever since and he took it with him when he started working as a bond broker for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. There, the father of two teenagers was known as a wizard with numbers. He knew almost every movement of the stock market since 1929 by heart, as well as every home run the New York Yankees ever made. On Sept. 11th, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 of the 1,000 employees in its York headquarters. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sonia Tita Puopolo, Sonia Morales Puopolo's daughter

    When Sonia Tita Puopolo received a call almost one year after the attacks on 9/11, informing her that rescue workers had recovered her mother’s left hand with the wedding ring still on it, she did not know whether to laugh or cry. The ring, of all things! It was the symbol of the great love between Sonia Morales Puopolo and her husband, Dominic. It remained almost intact. Every diamond was in its right place. “For me it is a symbol of hope despite all the sadness,” says her daughter. Today, Sonia Tita Puopolo wears the ring just as her father wished. She even wrote a book about the ring. The Puopolos were a generous couple. They made donations to a number of causes: the Democratic Party, gay rights groups, AIDS and cancer programs. On Sept. 11, the mother of three children was on her way to visit her son Mark Anthony. She was on the first plane that slammed into the towers. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Barbara Spence, Maynard’s wife

    In April 2002, recovery workers found the first body parts belonging to Maynard Spence, pieces of organs and fragments of his bones. His wife, Barbara, didn't want to see them. Together with Maynard’s daughters from his first marriage, Barbara decided to cremate everything. She spread Maynard's ashes over his favorite mountain in North Carolina. Barbara wanted to remember Maynard as this tall man with a vibrant laugh, as the man who penned her short love letters. Yet, today the most important love note is the one she herself wrote, scribbled on one of those notepads lying around in hotels. Maynard, from Atlanta, had this note on him when he visited the New York branch of the insurance company he worked for. “Hey Lover Boy – hope you have a wonderful day! I’ll be thinking of you! Love Babs.” Four years ago, she got a tattoo above her heart. It features a yellow rose, a hummingbird and the date 9/11, and will forever connect her to Maynard. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Alison Crowther, Welles’ mother

    He was the man with the red bandanna, an accessory he had adopted from his grandfather. He wore the bandanna on this morning at the Trade Center, high above the southern tip of Manhattan. Welles Crowther survived the initial impact of the plane. Shortly thereafter, he called his father. It was the last that was heard from him. Months later, his mother, Alison, read an article in which witnesses recounted how they were rescued from a smoky stairwell by a man whose nose and mouth were covered by a red bandanna. Six months after the attack, rescue workers found Welles’ body under a shattered staircase. The time on his wristwatch, a Citizen Chronograph WR 200, had stopped at 2:25. The red bandanna was not recovered.

    Captions by Giuseppe di Grazia and Martin Knobbe / stern Magazine
    Translation by Anuschka Tomat (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
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