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Plot to Attack N.Y. Foiled

His family insisted he had no connection to al-Qaeda. His mother, Nabila Qotob, told the Associated Press in Beirut that Hammoud taught economics at a local university. "His morale is high because he is confident he is innocent," she told the AP.

Fatfat said Hammoud appeared to reaching out to al-Qaeda and did not appear to have been assigned a specific mission by the group. "It seems to us they are working as an independent group," the Lebanese official said. "It seems it was his idea. He contacted many others by Internet."

Fatfat said Hammoud, a Sunni Muslim, lived in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp. Al-Qaeda members are reported to be active in the camp, according to the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.

The alleged plotters appear to reflect the ad hoc, self-organizing nature of many alleged terrorist groups. Connecting suspects directly to known terrorist organizers is often difficult, and many recent arrests have been of people who were allegedly at the beginning of their planning. Sorting bravado from real treachery can be difficult, according to terrorism experts.

Last month, the FBI arrested seven Miami men and charged them with terrorism. They had allegedly planned to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago. But the men had no contact with al-Qaeda, other than an FBI informant who was posing as a representative of the terrorist organization. And the group had neither money nor equipment before its members were arrested.

Like the plot announced yesterday, the Miami group's plans were described by investigators as "aspirational."

But U.S. authorities say that even if plots seem improbable, it is essential for arrests to be made as early as possible to prevent any real threat.

Speaking about yesterday's announcement, the FBI's Mershon said, "They were about to go to a phase where they would attempt to surveil targets, establish a regimen of attack and acquire the resources necessary to effectuate the attacks. And at that point, I think it's entirely appropriate to take it down."

The Hudson River tunnel threat appeared to combine several themes that have emerged as sources of anxiety for U.S. authorities over the past 18 months.

They include terrorists using the Internet to accomplish tasks that used to require travel and in-person meetings, such as casing targets and recruiting members. The alleged plots also brought a renewed focus on the vulnerability of rail and transit systems, which have gotten less federal aid for security than other transportation modes, such as commercial aviation.

Those financial concerns are often cited by local officials in New York and Washington, who say that federal authorities are not directing enough money their way. Yesterday, New York political leaders used the announcement of the alleged plot to renew their call for more funding.

Yesterday's report came one year after the London train and bus bombings that killed 52 people. In recent weeks, the New York Police Department had deployed additional personnel in Lower Manhattan. In Washington, Metro transit police said they were alerted to the threat along with national transit officials, and increased tunnel inspections over the past year.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus in Washington and Michelle Garc?a in New York, and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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