By Tuan Nguyen, Jill Colvin, Patrick Hedlund, Ben Fractenberg and Tom Liddy
MIDTOWN — The NYPD snapped into high alert Friday, with officers fanned across Midtown, stopping vans in Times Square and searching subway riders after warnings that terrorists might be plotting to strike the city on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a symbolic ride to City Hall on the subway in an effort to assure commuters that the city is safe, despite a warning from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of a "credible" threat.
Speaking on his morning radio show with WOR’s John Gambling, Bloomberg repeated that the threat is “credible, but not corroborated,” yet remained tight-lipped about specifics.
“It’s serious. But I think the right answer is go about your business,” he said, urging New Yorkers to be extra vigilant for the next few days.
Officials say that the plot, possibly targeting New York or Washington, involves three people, including a U.S. citizen., and was believed to incorporate a vehicle bomb on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, according to CNN.
The officials think that the operatives come from Pakistan-Afghanistan border area and are part of Al Qaeda, although it was not clear if they had entered the U.S. If they are Al Qaeda, some may be carrying U.S. documentation, the report said.
A security bulletin issued by Homeland Security and the FBI indicated that small arms attacks, poison, or other explosive devices could be used as well, CNN said.
According to the report, officials are concerned about the "origin" of the information — an Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan who has been reliable in the past, according to the report.
Some of the "chatter" purportedly indicates that new Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is involved, according to CNN.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking on the "Today Show" called the intelligence "the first...credible piece of information we've gotten" and said that "all hands are on deck," in response, the station said.
DNAinfo.com confirmed the number of operatives believed to be involved as well as the belief that they are members of Al Qaeda. Their whereabouts were unknown, the source said.
An official said that a "car bomb" as opposed to a truck bomb or some other type of larger explosive, is believed to be the desired method of attack, although they are considering "other scenarios" if this were not possible.
But the official cautioned that that the heightened level of alert may be attributable to the timing of the plot.
"A key factor is the time period we’re in," the source said. "We get threat information on a regular basis.
"I think if this were six months earlier or six months from now, we might not well have had people standing at a podium [Thursday] night," he said, referring to officials who gave press briefings.
The NYPD, MTA and other city agencies have stepped up precautions citywide, with increased security on bridges and tunnels, at landmarks, government buildings and houses of worship, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Thursday. He said residents should expect more random bag searches, bomb-sniffing dogs, radiation monitoring and police on the streets.
There were extra police in Penn Station for the Friday evening commute. One rider said he noticed the additional security but thought it was citizens more than police who were the best guards of the city.
"How safe are you at any time? They [police] can't cover every inch of the city," said Randy Martinez, 39, who was traveling from Penn Station to a concert in New Jersey. "All you can do is be on the lookout. If you see something, say something."
The Port Authority was also in a state of heightened alert Friday, with vehicle checks at all crossings, increased police presence at facilities, and increased bag checks at airports, PATH stations and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a spokesman said.
And Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that additional state police and national guard forces will be dispatched to "critical infrastructure sites within New York City as an added precaution," according to a statement. Among them are the World Trade Center, Penn Station, Grand Central Station, bridges and tunnels and "other key infrastructure sites."
"New Yorkers should feel confident that everything that needs to be done is being done to keep the city secure," he said.
"At the same time, we should not get overanxious, we should not panic, and we shouldn’t allow this threat to diminish the import of the 9/11 anniversary, because that would be doing just what the terrorists want us to do."
In Times Square, the security efforts were obvious, with cops stationed on both ends of the plazas and along major streets. At the corner of West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, a dozen cops stopped nearly every van traveling south, sending traffic to a grinding halt.
"Serious police presence around Times Square. In a black tinted Lincoln Navigator, they made me roll down my windows, stuck their heads [into the car]...," Twitter user @PriyaLondon wrote before noon.
"Manhattan traffic chaos! The police are stopping every vehicle going down 7th Ave toward Times Square. CPS [Central Park South] and streets above gridlocked," @cbm1971 said.
Another checkpoint was set up on West 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, where all trucks and vans traveling east were stopped.
Authorities were also stopping vehicles on the 59th Street/Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, causing a major backup, the AP reported.
Commuters had mixed reaction to the stepped-up efforts Friday, as they tried to come to terms with the latest threat.
“It's OK to have prevention… [but] I would prefer to have a normal life rather than being paranoid all the time,” said Jessica Aylett, 26, who was passing through Times Square.
“You see? Just four minutes [have passed] and they stopped more than a dozen cars," she added.
At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Ann Douglas, 28, criticized the security hype, which she said is inevitable on such an important date.
"I've had enough of all the security checks at airports and public transit. Some warnings always turn up on occasions like this," she said.
Others were more blunt with their frustration.
“The whole city has become a f---ing zoo,” one passerby muttered as he walked through Times Square.
But others praised the city and said it's better safe than sorry.
"Of course," it's good, said Gabriella Bolanos, 35, visiting from Mexico, who said she'd never seen so many police in the U.S.
Despite the threat, she said she's not afraid to be here in the days leading up to 9/11.
"I think the United States takes care of these things very well. I don't think there's anything to worry about," she said.
R. Seprath, 50, agreed.
"I'm not concerned with the threats, but I'm happy the security's out there," he said at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Police responded to at least one report of a suspicious package Friday, forcing MTA trains to bypass the Herald Square subway station during the morning rush, an agency spokesman said.
Police received a call at around 8:30 a.m. alerting them to an unattended item at West 35th Street and Sixth Avenue. Several dozen emergency personnel responded, along with a bomb squad, but the threat turned out not to be dangerous, police said.