- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

Federal agents, working with security officials in Lebanon and other foreign law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, have disrupted a terrorist network planning to attack train tunnels between New York and New Jersey, authorities said yesterday.

Lebanese security officials, acting on a U.S. request, have arrested Assem Hammoud, 31, a Beirut native, and said he admitted belonging to an “extremist organization” planning to carry out “a significant act of terrorism.”

FBI Assistant Director in Charge Mark Mershon, who heads the bureau’s New York field office, said the attacks tentatively were scheduled for October or November, but that none of the eight “principal players” identified in a yearlong investigation had yet been in the United States.

Mr. Mershon said Hammoud pledged his allegiance to al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and that the suspected conspirators were focusing on Port Authority of New York and New Jersey train tunnels that carry tens of thousands of commuters under the Hudson River daily.

“The planning or the plotting for this attack had matured to the point where it appeared the individuals 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,” Mr. Mershon said.

“At that point, I think it’s entirely appropriate to take it down.”

Law-enforcement officials said FBI agents, who monitored Internet chat rooms and e-mail messages used by suspected terrorists, discovered the scheme. At least two other arrests reportedly were made, but details were unavailable. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut declined comment.

The other five suspects remain at large.

FBI officials in Washington said that while al Qaeda continues to have an interest in attacking the United States, there is no credible information about any specific threat or target.

“At this time, we have no indication of any imminent threat to the New York transportation system or anywhere else in the U.S.,” said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko at the bureau’s Washington headquarters, adding that the FBI, through the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, is continuing to investigate suspected terrorist activities in this country and abroad.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN he had been aware of the investigation for nine months and described the conspiracy as “serious.” He said authorities had monitored the suspected terrorists “very closely,” adding that the New York transit system is “as safe as it can be.”

“This certainly was a serious plot against the New York transit system,” he said, adding that his knowledge of the investigation was, in part, one of the reasons for his anger last month when the Department of Homeland Security announced cuts in anti-terrorism grants for New York City.

The grant for New York, where 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda terrorists slammed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, dropped from $207 million to $124 million.

At the time, the seven-term lawmaker said Homeland Security and the Bush administration had “declared war on New York.”

“It’s a knife in the back to New York, and I’m going to do everything I can to make them very sorry they made this decision,” Mr. King said.

The proposed attack was first reported yesterday by the New York Daily News, which said it was intended to coincide with the first anniversary of a terrorist strike on the London transportation system that killed 52 persons. The newspaper said the Holland Tunnel, a roadway for cars and trucks, was a major target. Authorities yesterday said the Holland Tunnel was not a target.

Mr. King suggested federal authorities were not yet ready to make arrests, but acted after the Daily News story broke. He said, “I wish it had been held. It would have been better if this had not been disclosed.”

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, called the “interruption” of a terrorist plot targeting New York’s train tunnels “yet another reminder that we must remain steadfast in our fight against terrorism.”

“In the past few months, law-enforcement officials have thwarted several terror plots including threats against Chicago’s Sears Tower and federal buildings in Miami, and they have disrupted a terror cell in Canada. House Republicans will continue to provide the brave men and women fighting to win the global war on terror the resources they need to finish the job,” he said.

The Lebanese Security Service and Beirut’s intelligence agency, working with U.S. authorities, have vigorously sought to counter ongoing efforts by al Qaeda to establish a stronghold in that country.

In January, Lebanese authorities arrested 13 suspected al Qaeda terrorists, charging them with “establishing a gang to carry out terrorist acts, forging official and private documents and possessing unlicensed arms.” Those arrested included seven Syrians, three Lebanese, a Saudi Arabian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian.

On June 23, seven men also were indicted in a conspiracy to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and five government buildings in Miami. The men, called “homegrown terrorists” by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, were accused of providing material support to terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda. They also were charged with conspiracy to maliciously destroy buildings by means of an explosive device and conspiracy to levy war against the United States.

The seven include five U.S. citizens, one legal permanent resident and one Haitian national in the United States illegally, ranging in age from 22 to 32.

FBI Deputy Director John Pistole described that suspected plot as “aspirational, rather than operational.”

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