WASHINGTON – FBI agents monitoring Internet chat rooms smashed an Al Qaeda terrorist plot to attack New York City's underground transit link with New Jersey, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Eight suspects — including an Al Qaeda loyalist arrested in Lebanon and two others in custody elsewhere — had hoped to pull off the attack in October or November of this year, federal officials said. But federal investigators working with their counterparts in six other countries intervened.
"We're here today to discuss what we believe is the real deal," Mark Mershon, former assistant FBI director in New York, said during a press conference Friday. "We believe we intercepted this group early in their plotting and in fact, the plan has largely been disrupted."
The main target of the plot was the heavily traveled underground PATH train system that connects lower Manhattan and New Jersey's suburban communities, officials confirmed. The system carries more than 215,000 commuters daily. Mershon said the plot was supposed to be executed in October or November, but that it still was in the "planning stages."
"It was never a concern that this would actually be executed," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in Boston. "We were, as I say, all over this."
Mershon said the plan "involved martyrdom and explosives."
Mershon confirmed that one suspect, Assem Hammoud, is in custody in Lebanon and facing criminal charges.
Mershon said two other suspects are in custody in other locations, and that there were at least five other suspects they were hunting "around the world."
"The principal players are not in this country," he said, adding that the investigation has been ongoing for a year.
Hammoud, a Lebanese native and self-professed Al Qaeda operative, was arrested April 27, and admitted to plotting a terror attack in New York City, a senior Lebanese security official said Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said Hammoud claimed he was acting on orders from Usama bin Laden.
"I am proud to carry out his orders," Hammoud said, according to the official.
Hammoud, who claimed to be 31 and a resident of Beirut, said he had been ordered to live a life of fun and indulgence in Lebanon to hide his Islamic militancy, an official statement from the Lebanese government said, adding that he was instructed not to show any religious tendencies.
In opening the press conference, Mershon blasted the leaking of the ongoing investigation, and the publishing of a report on Friday by the New York Daily News. Officials later downplayed the Daily News report.
FBI and New York City officials would not go into details of the plot, but did confirm that the PATH system was the likely target, not the Holland Tunnel, as the Daily News reported.
"We have had a number of threats over the months and years, frankly, that would target all of the conveyances across the river," Mershon added.
The person who leaked the investigation is "clearly someone who doesn't understand the fragility of international relations," Mershon said.
"The release makes the investigation more difficult for us; it has greatly complicated what otherwise would be a very smooth relationship, a very smooth partnership, with a number of overseas allied agencies," Mershon added.
Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, added, "It would have been better if this had not been disclosed."
"For most of the year, we have been focusing on a group of Al Qaeda followers who have targeted the Hudson River tubes," Mershon told reporters.
Investigators decided in recent weeks that the "plotting for this attack had matured to a point where it appeared that the individuals were about to move forward," 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."
"At that point it's entirely appropriate to take it down."
A federal law enforcement official said the suspects hoped to inflict damage on the U.S. economy.
The men believed that by bombing the train tunnels, they could unleash a severe flood in lower Manhattan, including Wall Street, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The official also said investigators believe that an attack on a train tunnel, unlike the Holland Tunnel, could have achieved that goal.
Officials downplayed the danger, saying the Financial District is well above sea level.
While the planning was not far along, one U.S. official said, authorities "take aspirations of that sort seriously."
"At this time, we have no indication of any imminent threat to the New York transportation system or anywhere else in the United States," Richard Kolko, Washington-based FBI special agent, said in a statement early Friday.
Lebanese police issued a statement Friday saying that Hammoud, who uses the alias Amir Andalousli, belonged to "an extremist group that was in the process of preparing to carry a major terrorist act in the United States."
The statement said Hammoud was tracked down through monitoring of a Web site used by Islamic extremists, and "in cooperation and coordination with the FBI."
New York's transportation system has emerged as a potential terrorist threat several times over the years. A June book by journalist Ron Suskind highlighted a reported plot by Al Qaeda terrorists to kill thousands of New Yorkers by spreading cyanide gas in the subway. In May, a man was convicted of plotting to blow up a bustling subway station.
In 1993, the FBI rounded up more than a dozen men who allegedly conspired to blow up five New York City landmarks including the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. The prosecution resulted in more than a dozen convictions.
In the latest case, a federal official said FBI agents monitoring Internet chat rooms used by extremists learned of the plot in recent months and determined that tunnels were possibly being targeted after investigators pieced together code words from their conversations.
Another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, called the plot "largely aspirational" and described the Internet conversations as mostly extremists discussing and conceptualizing the plot. The official said no money had been transferred, nor had other similar operational steps been taken.
Officials cited the arrest of the Lebanese suspect — described as the scheme's mastermind — as a significant break in the investigation.
"It became clear from the analysis that (the Internet communications) related to the planning of a major terror act in the metro tunnels of New York under the Hudson River," the statement said.
Under interrogation, Hammoud said he had dispatched detailed maps of the target via the Internet.
He also said he planned to travel to Pakistan in the near future for four months of training and "that the date of the operation would be late 2006," Lebanese police said.
The suspect told investigators he already had undergone training in light weapons at a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon that is notorious for lawlessness and violence among rival Palestinian factions, Lebanese officials said.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut declined to comment on the case.
"We have seen the reports," an embassy spokesperson said. "We are in touch with the government of Lebanon."
The presence of Al Qaeda in Lebanon was confirmed in January when prosecutors charged 13 people with planning terrorist attacks and said they were linked to the terrorist group.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, speaking Friday at U.S. Coast Guard Change of Command Ceremonies, said authorities focused efforts on "where the risk is the greatest, mass transit systems that have a significant amount of track mileage underground — and under the water."
"We cannot guarantee perfect security, but we are going to do everything in our power to minimize the risk and reduce the threat from terrorism to all those who ride our trains, travel our highways," Chertoff said.
"We certainly share concerns with the Port Authority police about the transportation facilities in Lower Manhattan," said New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who added that additional police resources had been deployed to Lower Manhattan in the past few weeks.
"New York still remains in the crosshairs of the terrorists," Kelly said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg added: "This is one more reminder that in today's world, our safety can be menaced from any corner of the globe."
King said that federal law enforcement and New York police have been monitoring the plot for at least eight months.
"There was nothing imminent, but it was being monitored for a long period of time," said King, who said he has received regular intelligence briefings on the alleged plot. King said he had been unable to publicly disclose the plot because to do so would risk the investigation.
Lebanon's government was asked by the United States to hold off announcing the arrest of Hammoud while operations to disrupt the plot were continuing, the Daily News reported, quoting unnamed sources.
The most recent terror arrest in the United States came last month, when seven men were arrested and charged with conspiring to blow up the landmark Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in Miami and four other cities as part of a pledge to Al Qaeda to wage war against the United States. Officials said the Miami plot never went beyond the earliest stages.
A U.S. law enforcement official said one of the others accused in the plot is believed to be Canadian, but said there were no apparent links to the 17 people arrested last month in a plot to bomb buildings around Toronto.
Authorities close to the investigation told The Canadian Press that police there questioned a man but released him because there was not enough evidence to hold him.
Need for More Homeland Security Funds
Lawmakers and others said the reports of the plot highlight a major need for metropolitan areas such as New York to get a bigger portion of security funds handed out by the Department of Homeland Security.
"More than anything else, if true, these news reports offer incontrovertible proof that the federal government's homeland security strategy is flawed in its rhetoric and in its application. Let me be clear: Americans who face the greatest risk should receive the greatest amount of funding," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "How anyone, at any level of government, could argue otherwise is beyond me and shows a flagrant disregard for the realities of protecting our homeland."
He continued: "For too long, the federal government has distributed security grants in a manner that seems to be based merely on whim. It certainly is not based on risk. It defies common sense that a would-be terrorist in Beirut with an Internet connection recognizes that the New York region is rife with significant landmarks, yet Homeland Security Secretary [Michael] Chertoff doesn't."
"These are plots still aimed at tunnels, bridges whatever," added counter-terrorism analyst Steve Emerson. "The jihadists, no matter where they are located — and this includes homegrown cells — are still going to be looking to the Northeastern corridor to make an impact."
FOX News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.