FBI links 8 abroad to N.Y. terror plotOfficials: Commuter rail tunnels targeted
By Josh Meyer and Ellen Barry, Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times; Josh Meyer reported from Washington and Ellen Barry from New York; Times special correspondent Rania Abouzeid contributed from Bei
Published July 8, 2006
NEW YORK -- U.S. authorities, aided by other nations, have thwarted a plot by foreign terrorists to blow up commuter train tunnels beneath the Hudson River that connect lower Manhattan and New Jersey, FBI officials announced Friday.
The plan, involving eight conspirators based in other countries, was "the real deal," FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon said at a news conference.
Mershon, head of the bureau's New York field office, added that although no explosives had been purchased by the suspects, "the plotting of the attack had matured to the point where it appeared the individuals were about to move forward, attempt to surveil targets, establish a regimen of attack and acquire resources" to carry it out.
Three of the co-conspirators are in custody overseas, including the suspected mastermind, 31-year-old Assem Hammoud of Beirut, Mershon said. He added that authorities have tentatively identified the other five and that extensive manhunts for them are proceeding.
Lebanese authorities, working closely with the FBI, arrested Hammoud in April, and he confessed to orchestrating the planned attacks, which were to occur in October or November, according to Mershon and Lebanon's Interior Ministry.
Hammoud had taken a formal oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and faces terrorism-related charges in Lebanon, Mershon said.
Mershon said he would not identify the other two suspects in custody or provide additional details of the plot, citing an ongoing investigation that remains active on three continents.
The FBI began its probe a year ago based on intelligence from sources, Mershon said.
The news conference came after a story about the plot appeared in Friday's New York Daily News. But authorities said the historic Holland Tunnel was not the intended target, as the News reported
There are two railway tunnels through which commuter trains travel to and from New Jersey and lower Manhattan. The system is a subsidiary of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey known as PATH, for Port Authority Trans-Hudson. It typically transports 215,115 passengers each workday.
One PATH tunnel curves through the footprint of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorists assault.
Friday marked the first anniversary of a coordinated series of terrorist bombings on three subway trains and a bus in London. Authorities said Friday there was no apparent connection between the London bombings and the current case, nor have direct links been established between the suspects in the tunnel plot and Al Qaeda.
But they noted similarities to the London attack, which killed 56 people and injured about 700 others, including the targeting of mass transit systems by Islamic militants who either sympathize with or actively support bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization.
In the current case, Mershon and other authorities said the FBI locked onto the suspects after they discussed details of the plot in an Internet chat room frequented by Islamic militants.
They said the plot was disrupted thanks to what they described as a "textbook" cooperative effort among counterterrorism officials in the United States, Lebanon and five other foreign governments.
Details of plot
Hammoud, also known as Amir al-Andalousy, was arrested in Beirut by members of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces on April 27, the Lebanon Interior Ministry said in a statement Friday.
It said Hammoud, a Lebanese national, was allegedly plotting "a big terrorist operation against rail tunnels in New York City under the Hudson River."
"After questioning he confessed that he was planning to travel to Pakistan for four months' training and that the date for the attack was decided to be late in 2006," the Lebanese statement said.
It also said that Hammoud confessed that he had passed on maps of the target to an unknown number of "his accomplices," and confessed to belonging to a "radical organization."
U.S. authorities said the suspects were communicating openly though chat rooms and e-mail messages, in the belief that no one could track or identify them.
By late Friday, there were some discrepancies about whether any of the alleged plotters had ever been to the United States.
At the news conference, Mershon said the FBI believed none who were principal players had visited the United States.
But the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation issued a report Friday saying Hammoud had traveled to New York and New Jersey on several occasions using a Canadian passport to survey possible targets.
The respected Beirut-based television station also said Hammoud was recruited into Al Qaeda in 1994 while he was in Canada.
Later, a FBI official confirmed that Hammoud had visited the U.S. at least once but added, "We have no reason to believe it had anything to do with this plot."
The FBI official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, would not say whether Hammoud had entered the country on a Canadian passport or whether the ongoing investigation extends into Canada.