NEW YORK – The terrorist plot, in the words of one FBI official, involved "martyrdom and explosives": suicide bombers who would attack train tunnels used by tens of thousands of commuters in an effort to bring death and flooding to lower Manhattan.
Eight suspects had hoped to pull off the attack in October or November, federal officials said. But federal investigators working with their counterparts in six other countries intervened before the suspects could travel to the United States and become a more serious threat, officials said Friday.
Initial reports said the suspects — including an Al Qaeda loyalist arrested in Lebanon and two others in custody elsewhere — wanted to attack the Holland Tunnel, a major thoroughfare that carries cars beneath the Hudson River and into Manhattan.
But officials said the group, with five suspects still at large, had specifically mentioned only the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation train tunnels, which carry more than 215,000 passengers each weekday between New York and New Jersey.
"This is a plot that involved martyrdom and explosives," said FBI Assistant Director Mark J. Mershon.
Officials cited the arrest of the Lebanese suspect — described as the scheme's mastermind — as a significant break in the investigation. A Lebanese official said the Beirut man confessed to plotting to attack the tunnels later this year, and that he was acting on Osama bin Laden's orders.
Police arrested the operative on April 27, acting on information from the FBI, a senior security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The 31-year-old suspect uses the alias Amir Andalousli, but his real name is Assem Hammoud.
The suspect told investigators he had already undergone training in light weapons in Ein El-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon that is notorious for lawlessness and violence among rival Palestinian factions.
His family, however, denied any Al Qaeda links.
His mother, Nabila Qotob, told The Associated Press she's visited him regularly at a police station where he's being held.
"His morale is high because he is confident he is innocent," she said. "Don't make up accusations. My son is innocent. What Al Qaeda? He never left his father's side. He loves life and fun."
New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly said the men believed that bombing the train tunnels under the Hudson River would unleash massive flooding in lower Manhattan, home to Wall Street and the World Trade Center site.
FBI agents monitoring Internet chat rooms that extremists use determined that tunnels were possibly being targeted after they pieced together code words from the conversations, a federal official said.
A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing, said the suspects hoped it would inflict damage on the U.S. economy.
"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," Mershon said.
Details of the plot — first reported by the Daily News — emerged on the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the London transportation system that killed 52 people. Officials said the timing of Friday's report was coincidental.
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 to kill thousands by spreading cyanide gas in the subway. In May, a man was convicted of plotting to blow up a bustling subway station.