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Security Alert Issued for Inauguration Festivities

By Spencer S. Hsu
U.S. counter-terrorism officials are aggressively investigating a potential threat of "uncertain credibility" to today's inauguration events posed by an East African Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda.

In a bulletin issued Monday night to state and local law enforcement, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and intelligence officials said they are analyzing information received in the last few days that people affiliated with al-Shabaab, a radical group fighting an insurgency in Somalia, may try to stage an attack at some point Tuesday, U.S. officials said.

Analysts have drawn no conclusions but are investigating the possibility of a link between the threat and reports that U.S.-based Somalis have traveled to the African country to fight.

"Authorities at all levels are vigorously pursuing any lead relating to this threat information," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said, saying Obama administration officials have been informed of the investigation. "The Transition Team has been briefed and is fully integrated into the process."

Another U.S. counter-terrorism official said intelligence agencies were "not dismissive" of the threat but stressed the lack of corroboration and detail. The tip appears to have originated with U.S. law enforcement agencies, as opposed to overseas operatives.

The State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist group in February, citing "a number" of al Qaeda affiliates among its members and its responsibility for numerous attacks in the past two years aimed at undermining the Somali government and replacing it with an Islamic state. Kenya has recently accused the group of threatening "jihad" or holy war against Nairobi for its support for the Somali government.

Last fall, the FBI returned the remains of college student Shirwa Ahmed to his family in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Authorities wouldn't say if he was a suspect or a victim, but community members have said the naturalized U.S. citizen blew himself up in a suicide bombing in northern Somalia in late October. The FBI is investigating the disappearance of more than a dozen young men from the community.

While security alerts from Washington are not unusual, ones with even the "limited specificity" of the al-Shabaab notice are atypical. Knocke noted that security for the inauguration is at unprecedented levels, and no changes have been made.

"We encourage the public attending Inauguration events to go about their normal plans," he said, while asking people to be thoughtful and vigilant about their surroundings.

Posted at 1:03 PM ET on Jan 20, 2009  | Category:  National Security
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