NEW YORK?Nearly seven years after terrorists took down the World Trade Center?s twin towers, New York City police officials have embarked on an ambitious plan designed to thwart potentially more catastrophic attacks.
Officials and experts say the al-Qaida network may have been crippled in several countries but the deadly jihadist group is still far from being wiped out and it cannot be written off so long as its ?dogma? is alive.
The horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 go a long way to defining this year?s White House race even as Barack Obama and John McCain put on a veneer of unity to commemorate Thursday?s anniversary.
The Democratic and Republican White House contenders plan to pay their respects together at the site of the fallen World Trade Center, in a rare truce to their bad-tempered battle for the Nov. 4 election.
If the faltering US economy dominates voters? concerns this year, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 carnage still reverberates as a pivotal test of leadership credentials at a time of war on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
?Of course, 9/11 is still one of the most important defining images/moments in the American national security debate, and most other key debates can be related to it in one way or another,? Michael O?Hanlon, a national security expert at Washington?s Brookings Institution, told Agence France-Presse.
On the shocking day that hijacked jets slammed into Manhattan?s Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and into a Pennsylvania field after a passenger uprising, Obama was a little-known state senator in Illinois.
McCain, from the start, was pugnacious in calling for the United States to go on a war footing against the ?transcendent evil? of Islamic extremism wherever its threat was felt.
To the ?gates of hell?
But while vowing to pursue al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden to the ?gates of hell,? McCain has decried Obama?s demand for US strikes on terror cells inside Pakistan if the Islamabad government is unwilling to act.
But for now, the differences will be put aside as the presidential contenders suspend their campaigns for their visit to the site where the World Trade Center once stood.
?All of us came together on 9/11?not as Democrats or Republicans?but as Americans. In smoke-filled corridors and on the steps of the Capitol; at blood banks and at vigils?we were united as one American family,? they said in a joint statement.
NYPD reinventing self
A repeat of Sept. 11, 2001 is only one of a long list of worries that have prompted the New York Police Department to spend the last several years reinventing itself as an intelligence and homeland security agency.
The largest US police department, with about 37,000 officers, has spent tens of millions of dollars on an array of high-tech security measures.
It has also assigned 1,000 officers to counterterrorism duty, including 10 detectives posted around the globe who collect and share intelligence.
Overall, it?s an effort unmatched by any other city in the United States, and perhaps the world.
Planned cyanide attack
David Cohen?a former CIA official who heads the department?s intelligence division?said the department had identified more than a dozen serious plots against the city in the past seven years that were either interrupted or abandoned, including some that haven?t become public.
Among those that have come to light: a planned cyanide attack on the subways by al-Qaida operatives that authorities say was called off in 2002; another aborted al-Qaida plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge in 2003; a local scheme to blow up the subway station at Herald Square in 2004, resulting in the arrest and conviction of a Pakistani immigrant; and a plot to bomb underwater train tunnels to flood lower Manhattan, which was broken up in 2006 by several arrests overseas.
Chief target: New York
For terrorists, attacking New York City ?is marbled into their thought process,? Cohen said. ?If you want to get into the major leagues in the terrorism business, you come here.?
There also are reports from the department?s analysts who have studied the rise of homegrown terror cells, and dispatches from investigators posted in Madrid, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, Lyon, France, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Amman, Jordan.
The department is so concerned that it?s spending $90 million to secure the trade center site, Wall Street and other parts of lower Manhattan using a series of checkpoints and 3,000 closed-circuit cameras monitored by officers at a command center.
Also in the works is a project to use license-plate readers, radiation detectors and cameras installed at 16 bridges and four tunnels to screen every car, truck or other vehicle entering Manhattan for radioactive materials and other terrorism threats. About a million vehicles drive onto the island everyday.
The vehicle data?license plate numbers, radiological readings and photos?would be automatically analyzed by computers programmed with information about suspicious vehicles. Police say the system could help them intercept would-be attackers before they can do harm.
The department has coordinated with police forces in New Jersey, Long Island and towns north of the city to expand the line of defense against terrorists transporting a dirty bomb or?most frightening of all?a nuclear device.
With the city certain to remain a prime target for terror, the police department can?t let down its guard, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.