Why did U.S. security services jack up their color-coded threat gauge to a level of high orange? In the past two weeks, al-Qaeda has orchestrated a string of suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. But it wasn't those attacks alone that prompted the heightened alert. Intelligence gathered weeks ago--including intercepted communications with cryptic references to upcoming "weddings"--indicated that Osama bin Laden's minions had entered an "operational phase." The continuing chatter suggests that al-Qaeda may soon turn its attention to the West again. Sources tell TIME that some of the group's agents are annoyed that the latest attacks took so many Muslim lives, provoking a backlash against al-Qaeda in the Arab world. Among the most troubling intercepts, these sources say, are chats al-Qaeda agents hiding in Iran have had with cohorts scattered around the globe. This indicates, they say, that some of the network's leaders are still active in Iran. One of them, according to a U.S. official, is Abu Mousab al Zarqawi, chief of al-Qaeda's ally Ansar al-Islam. His alleged presence in northern Iraq was cited by Bush as evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda to help justify the U.S. invasion.
U.S. officials aren't the only ones on high alert. The May 12 bombings in Riyadh have jolted the Saudis into long-overdue action. FBI agents sent there have found local officials in an uncharacteristically cooperative mood. For the first time, sources tell TIME, Saudis have allowed foreigners to interrogate their citizens. Still, as many as 10 al-Qaeda cells exist in Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials say, and at least one is active. Moreover, the Saudi royals derive legitimacy from the country's fundamentalist clergy, many of whom may resent a crackdown on al-Qaeda. "It's like they've got a tiger by the tail," says a U.S. official, "and they're not sure what's better: letting go or holding on tighter." --By Unmesh Kher. Reported by Elaine Shannon, Timothy J. Burger and Scott MacLeod