By Spencer S. Hsu and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A08
The Lebanese man arrested in an alleged plot to bomb New York transit tunnels under the Hudson River had been recruited by al-Qaeda three years ago and members of his cell had been attempting to seek help from the organization for the attack, U.S. and Lebanese officials said yesterday.
Authorities announced the arrest of Assem Hammoud, 31, on Friday. They said he had been held in Beirut since April 27 and had been planning an assault on PATH commuter trains this fall, though the alleged conspiracy never reached the point of the suspects beginning to gather intelligence and explosives.
In addition to Hammoud, U.S. officials say, two suspects are being held overseas without charges, five others are at least partly identified and six foreign governments are cooperating.
Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, commander of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, said one suspect left Syria for Libya, where he has been arrested. Authorities would not say where the third suspect in custody is being held. At some point, Rifi said, the suspects were in Bosnia, Canada, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates. Rifi said one of the suspects was an Iranian Kurd who has not been arrested.
FBI Assistant Director John Miller said, "It was a self-initiating foreign cell that had access to al-Qaeda's connections."
Law enforcement officials went on an offensive yesterday in reaction to skepticism from some U.S. counterterrorism experts about how serious the alleged plotters were. One expert had dismissed the plot as "jihadi bravado."
Miller acknowledged that the FBI had not completed the investigation but said the agency went public last week because of Lebanon's decision to charge Hammoud. "I can consider it a happy problem that we're being pressed on the question of 'Did we disrupt a plot too early?' rather than 'Did we wait too long and have one go forward?' " he said.
Hammoud was recruited to al-Qaeda in 2003 by a Syrian who later took him twice to Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh, for weapons training, Rifi said. He said the Syrian, who has not been arrested, told Hammoud to use the Internet, where last year FBI agents monitoring Web sites and chat rooms uncovered the plot.
A U.S. law enforcement official said that among the eight main suspects, one "had a connection high up" in the organization of al-Qaeda's former leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. and coalition air strike last month. "What we know is one individual in the plot said that they had that connection, and could tap into it for money," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because elements of the investigation are classified.
Rifi said Hammoud had some access to Zarqawi, saying, "He is one of a group, but there is no proof that he has a direct link to Zarqawi personally."
Although FBI officials said Friday that none of the group had been in the United States, yesterday they said Hammoud visited relatives in Northern California in 2000 and may have entered other times that were not documented. U.S. border agents may permit crossings by people with a government identity card who say they are Canadian citizens. Hammoud attended Concordia University in Montreal from 1995 to 2002, graduating with a bachelor's degree in finance and international business.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.