N.Y. tunnel plot thwarted

`Real deal' involved 8 foreign terrorists, FBI says

3 in custody overseas


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 yesterday.

The plan, involving eight conspirators based in other countries, was "the real deal," FBI Assistant Director Mark J. Mershon said at a news conference in Manhattan.

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 with the FBI, arrested Hammoud in April, and he confessed to orchestrating the planned attacks, which were to occur sometime in October or November, according to Mershon and Lebanon's Interior Ministry.

Hammoud, who had taken a formal oath of allegiance to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, a pledge known as bayat, faces unspecified terrorism-related charges in Lebanon, Mershon said.

He would not identify the other two suspects in custody or provide additional details of the plot, citing a continuing investigation that remains active on three continents.

The FBI began its probe exactly a year ago, based on intelligence it received from unspecified sources, Mershon said.

The hastily called news conference came just hours after an article about the plot appeared in yesterday's editions of the New York Daily News, setting many area commuters on edge.

There are two railway tunnels through which commuter trains travel between New Jersey and lower Manhattan. The system, a subsidiary of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, typically transports 215,115 passengers each workday.

One PATH tunnel curves through the footprint of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, destroyed Sept. 11, 2001.

Authorities said yesterday that there were no apparent connection between the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and the current case, nor have direct links been established between the suspects in the tunnel plot and al-Qaida.

But they pointed to similarities to the London attack, which killed 56 people and injured about 700, including the targeting of mass transit systems by Islamic militants who either sympathize with or actively support Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

In the current case, Mershon and other authorities said that 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 a "textbook" cooperative effort among counter-terrorism officials in the United States, Lebanon and five other foreign governments.

Hammoud, also known as Amir al-Andalousy, was arrested in Beirut by Lebanon's Internal Security Forces on April 27, the Lebanon Interior Ministry said in a statement yesterday.

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 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."

"He was told not to show any religious inclinations while in Lebanon and to give the impression of a playboy, which he did perfectly," the statement said.

U.S. authorities said the suspects were communicating openly though chat rooms and e-mail, in the belief that no one could track or identify them.

At the news conference, authorities said the historic Holland Tunnel was not the intended target, as the Daily News reported. Instead, they said, the alleged plot focused on setting off bombs on the commuter PATH trains that also bring millions of commuters from New Jersey into and out of lower Manhattan every year.

Mershon, flanked by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, said authorities had not planned on disclosing Hammoud's arrest or other elements of the plot disruption, and that the unwanted publicity "has greatly complicated" efforts to catch the five co-conspirators, who remain fugitives somewhere overseas.

Josh Meyer and Ellen Barry write for the Los Angeles Times.

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