By Spencer S. Hsu and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 8, 2006; A01
A terrorist plot to attack transit tunnels under New York's Hudson River was broken up in its early planning stages, U.S. authorities said yesterday, with three suspects arrested overseas, including a Lebanese man the FBI said was an al-Qaeda follower.
FBI assistant director for New York Mark J. Mershon said investigators had disrupted the plot before the suspects could come to the United States and begin to gather intelligence and explosives for the attack. He said there was no threat now to the PATH commuter lines, which carry tens of thousands of people between New York and New Jersey each day.
The FBI uncovered the alleged plot last summer and intercepted e-mails and chat-room postings on Web sites used to recruit Islamic terrorists. U.S. authorities turned in April to Lebanese officials for help in tracking one of the suspects, Assem Hammoud. The 31-year-old man, who the FBI said was the group's leader, was arrested in Beirut on April 27 and has confessed, officials said.
"This is a plot that would have involved martyrdom, explosives and certain of the tubes that connect New Jersey with Lower Manhattan," Mershon said. He called the threat "the real deal."
Hammoud was arrested before leaving for four months of training in Pakistan, and Lebanese investigators discovered details of a terrorist "project" on his computer that included a map "with a lot of details about New York," Lebanon's acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said in a telephone interview.
But authorities said there was no evidence that the plotters had taken any actions, such as buying explosives or sending money. They cast doubt on the feasibility of initial reports, which first appeared in the New York Daily News, that terrorists sought to flood Lower Manhattan and the Financial District by bombing tunnels.
There were conflicting assessments among U.S. counterterrorism officials about the significance of the alleged plot.
Two U.S. counterterrorism officials, speaking on the condition that their names and agencies not be identified because the FBI is the government's lead agency, discounted the ability of the conspirators to carry out an attack.
One said the alleged plot was "not as far along" as described and was "more aspirational in nature." The other described the threat as "jihadi bravado," adding "somebody talks about tunnels, it lights people up," but that there was little activity to back up the talk.
Speaking to reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "It was never a concern that this would actually be executed. We were . . . all over this."
Authorities provided few details on two of the suspects who were arrested, declining to say where they had been apprehended. An FBI official said one was Canadian but was not being held in Canada. Mershon said officials had not planned to announce the arrests yesterday and criticized the leak to the media, saying it upset cooperation between the United States and six foreign governments assisting in the investigation.
Authorities said Hammoud, who also used the name Amir Andalousli, told investigators that he had planned the attacks for October or November and had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
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.