Photo courtesy San Diego Union Tribune
California authorities have confirmed some of the wildfires that have triggered the evacuation of about a million people and burned 1,600 structures with damages at more than $1 billion were set deliberately, and a terror watch organization says the circumstances match terror plans the FBI alerted law enforcement to several years ago.
“In 2003 an FBI memo alerted law enforcement agencies that an al-Qaida terrorist being held in detention had talked of masterminding a plot to set a series of devastating forest fires around the western United States,” the National Terror Alert Response Center warned today.
“It was reported that the detainee, who was not identified, said the plan involved three or four people setting wildfires using timed devices in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming that would detonate in forests and grasslands after the operatives had left the country,” the advisory continued. “The detainee believed that significant damage to the U.S. economy would result and once it was realized that the fires were terrorist acts, U.S. citizens would put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies.”
WND reported at the time that an Arabic-language jihadi website also posted a message purporting to be “al-Qaida’s plan of economic attack” on the U.S. that including proposals to turn the nation’s forests into raging infernos.
Other components of the plan, according to the Northeast Intelligence Network, were proposals to attack assets of large American companies, target oil refineries and airports, deliberately pollute food supplies and attack transportation facilities.
Fire officials in Orange County said today the Santiago Canyon Fire is an arson and offered a $50,000 reward to find the arsonist.
Officials said the massive fire, which has caused an estimated $10 million in damage, had three separate points of origin. Two were on one side of the road and the third was on the other.
“Whoever did this knew what they were doing,” said Kris Concepcion, a fire authority battalion chief, who noted the blazes traveled three miles in just the first 20 minutes on Sunday.
Authorities are reporting five deaths in the blazes so far.
The National Terror Alert Response Center report said, “We are NOT implying that the California fires are an act of terrorism; however, the threat of pyro-terrorist attacks pose a significant risk to the U.S. and the fires in California and Greece earlier this year should be a wake-up call.”
Less than two months ago, between four and five dozen people were killed and scores more hospitalized with serious injuries as a result of wildfires in portions of Greece. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis expressed his suspicions.
“So many fires sparked simultaneously is so many places is no coincidence,” he said when the blazes erupted.
And Terror Watch notes a top prosecutor in Greece now has begun investigating whether the arsons were, in fact, terrorism.
Dimitris Papangelopoulos said the investigation will determine “whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests” should be prosecuted under the nation’s anti-terrorism law.
In the current California firestorm, authorities say they also have detained one suspect, but he wasn’t identified immediately. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Beavers reported he was detained for allegedly attempting to light a fire at a campground.
A woman driving past the campground saw a subject crouched to the ground, and then saw flames, according to Beavers. The witness called police, and the suspect was arrested at a nearby market, authorities said.
Winds weakened somewhat today, giving the 8,000 firefighters on duty hope they could made some progress against the flames that have scorched about 650 square miles from Santa Barbara to San Diego. But flames clearly remained out of control.
President Bush tried to reassure Californians, saying, “I want the people of Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them. They can rest assured that the federal government will do everything we can to help put out these fires.”
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the opening of five local assistance centers to provide help to those who are displayed by the fires.
“The devastation and loss of life from these wildfires has been horrific, but the people of California are going to rebuild and we must do all we can to help these communities recover,” said Schwarzenegger.
“I extend my sincere gratitude and appreciation to the firefighters who courageously continue to battle these wildfires and put their lives on the line every day. You are true heroes,” he said.
The local assistance centers will serve as efficient one-stop sources for disaster relief services, including information on how to replace records lost in the fires, file insurance claims and apply for assistance and housing.
Jay Alan, a spokesman for California’s emergency response office, said the cause of the fires is being investigated.
WND’s earlier reports documented al-Qaida threats against the forests of the U.S. and its allies – and the rash of wildfires that raged through Europe, Australia and the U.S. at the time.
Law enforcement officials also suspected several of the California wildfires in 2002 that killed 18, scorched more than 718,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,400 homes in 10 days were deliberately set – increasing speculation there is a terror connection to the blazes.
Damage estimates exceeded $2 billion then.
In blazes across Europe that year, there was evidence terrorists may have contributed. Authorities said after fires swept through the Moures mountains near the French Riviera, investigators found Molotov cocktails – gasoline bombs – at the ignition point for fires that killed at least four and destroyed 50 homes.
Australian also at that time investigated whether al-Qaida planned to spark brushfires in a new wave of terrorism.
“Australian security authorities are aware of reports that al-Qaida has considered starting brushfires in the U.S. as a form of terrorist attack,” said a spokeswoman for Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams during the investigation about the same time as the warning for western U.S. states. “Arson attacks are just one of a wide range of scenarios which have been considered as part of our investigations into al-Qaida’s ability to conduct attacks in Australia.”
In fact, Arab terrorists in Israel have started dozens of major forest fires over the years.
As far back as 1988, Israeli police caught more than a dozen Palestinian adults in the act of setting fires, while other Arabs confessed to arson after arrest. Some fires followed specific calls by underground Arab terrorists. A leaflet issued by the Palestinian uprising’s underground leadership called for “the destruction and burning of the enemy’s properties, industry and agriculture.”
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