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A security officer stands guard outside the Capitol Building.
Photo:CNN

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They are warnings issued by government officials when they have considerable suspicion that terrorists might strike at America or its allies in the near future.

Terror alerts generally come as a result of some compelling evidence provided by U.S. intelligence agents that the danger is real and credible. White House homeland security chief Tom Ridge has been the person who issues them publicly.

It is believed that terror alerts represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of current threats being made against the U.S. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) keeps a report called a "threat matrix" with up to 100 new terrorist threats added every day. Only the most credible ones lead to a nationwide alert about one out of every 2,000.

Terror alerts are issued to local police before the public is informed. The FBI sends the alerts along a nationwide computer network reaching more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country.

Unfotunately, terror alerts tend to be vague. The government issued three alerts between October 11 and December 3, none of which specified when, where or how terrorists might strike.

While the alerts might not affect the routines of most Americans, they do impact how business is carried out across the nation. Everything from tourist attractions to airplane flight patterns can be affected as security personnel brace for and try to prevent the worst.

Share your thoughts on the attacks in Afghanistan You Tell Us.

An MTV News Staff report

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