The very lights and sirens that urge us to make way when we see and hear an ambulance approaching could be powerful tools in the hands of terrorists intent on using that very promise of help to camouflage a bomb.
Incidents using ambulances to deliver bombs occur with some regularity in the Middle East. Recently, 10 people were killed in one such incident in Iraq.
On Aug. 1, U.S. officials warned that al Qaeda terrorists could be planning attacks on financial institutions in New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
ABC News has learned that in the wake of that alert, authorities in the Northeast are investigating at least four incidents where people asked suspicious, detailed questions of firefighters and emergency personnel about how ambulances are operated — how fast they go, and when drivers should turn on the siren.
Health-Care Professionals Warned
These cases prompted very serious concern, and in the state of New Jersey, Attorney General Peter Harvey issued a written alert to law enforcement agencies.
"Within the past week, the Office of Counter-Terrorism received three reports of suspicious activity concerning ambulances," New Jersey Infrastructure Advisory Bulletin No. 143 began. "The most recent incident involved an individual who attended an open-house at an ambulance squad in Middlesex County.
"The man, who claimed he was from Pakistan and a physician, asked a series of questions to the squad members that related exclusively to the operation of the emergency vehicles, including the speed at which the vehicles responded to calls and the use of the lights and sirens," it said."The individual appeared very nervous, did not ask about patient care, and left the premises when asked to complete a membership application."
The other two incidents cited in the New Jersey bulletin were equally specific in nature, and according to Sidney Casperson, director of the state Office of Counter-Terrorism, a warning was also sent to those in the health-care professions. They were told to keep their guard up.
Officials said bombs carried in large vehicles — such as trucks, limousines or ambulances — were a major source of concern, as they are believed to be the most likely way the terrorist would deliver on their threat against U.S. financial institutions.
Looking at the Pattern
What was most curious about the incidents was not just that they occurred, but that all three occurred in the short space of just a few days in the past two weeks. That pattern, as much as the incidents themselves, is a focus of the investigation.
A fourth such incident occurred in the New York City borough of the Bronx over the weekend, according to a public safety official in New York. That one, too, is under investigation.
In at least three cases, when the questioners were asked about their own identity, they gave vague answers and left before police could be notified.
These incidents are being taken very seriously, as ambulances, like tanker trucks and limos, could deliver large bombs. Plus, they have the added benefit of possibly lowering the guard of security personnel at potential targets.
In Britain, police fear terrorists may be building discarded emergency vehicles on the Internet. An internal police alert noted that ambulances and surplus police cars had been listed for sale on an online auction site.
Eight men charged with terrorist offenses appeared in court in London today. Intelligence sources have said one of the men is a major al Qaeda operative known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi. He is suspected of being involved in the surveillance of financial institutions in Washington, New York and New Jersey.