MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wash. (AP)--A string of suicide bombers rocked Mount St. Helens National Park on Monday in what federal homeland security officials are describing as "the most brazen attack on US soil since September 11."
The number of bombers involved in the attack is still unknown, but the blast was powerful enough shake the ground several miles away. A large debris cloud emanating from the top of the mountain could be seen from as far away as Olympia.
"Based on the size and intensity of the explosion, we have reason to believe that multiple suicide-bombers were involved," Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told reporters in a hastily convened press conference at 3pm.
Ridge urged residents close to Mount St. Helens National Monument to remain in their homes until they received further instructions from authorities. "At this moment the damage from the explosions seems relatively contained, and we do not believe that the mountain constitutes a further threat to locals," he said.
"We have no reason to believe that biological, chemical or nuclear weapons were used," he added. "But we will be unable to be sure until explosives experts arrive at the site."
Ridge told reporters that intelligence agencies had noticed "an increased level of chatter" in recent days. "There was some indication that Al-Qaeda operatives were planning something big," he said. But he was quick to add that he had had "no specific information" warning of the attack.
Terrorism experts say that the attack is by far the most sophisticated since September 11, 2001, when hijacked airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon leading to over 3,000 casualties. "For a group of terrorists to hit an undeveloped natural wilderness with such force and precision would require a great deal of forethough," says terrorism expert Michael O'Fallon of the Brookings Institution.
"I believe only [Jordanian-born radical Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi or Osama Bin Ladin himself would be capable of such a strike," O'Fallon says.
In what appears to be a schism in the administration, a group of government scientists is claiming that the blast may have actually been a natural event.
"We believe that the smoke and steam you see rising from Mount St. Helens is the result of natural volcanic activity," says Tom Pierson, a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey's (USGS) Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.
For weeks now, he says, researchers have been observing activity that sometimes preceeds an eruption. "USGS crews just yesterday observed dramatic uplift in the crater floor underneath the glacier and on part of the lava dome," he says. "This is entirely consistent with volcanic activity."
Pierson says that a similar eruption on 18 May 1980 led to the deaths of 57 people and coated much of the Pacific Northwest with ash and debris. That incident is now also under investigation, says Ridge.
"We must be strong"
Speaking at a news conference in the White House rose garden, President Bush promised to "hunt down and bludgeon to death" whoever was responsible for the attack on the mountaintop.
"Mount St. Helens is a great source of national inspiration," Bush told reporters. "Now this symbol of freedom has been heinously befouled by those who love oppression."
"We must be strong and show these terrorists that we will always stand against the forces of evil," Bush said. "They cannot run and they cannot hide, because justice will always prevail. God bless America."