U.S. security officials say they have disrupted a terrorist suicide-bombing plot that targeted one or more of the rail tunnels that connect New York City with neighboring New Jersey. Three men allegedly involved in the plot are in custody in other countries, including a Lebanese man described by U.S. authorities as the mastermind of the group.
FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon told a news conference in New York that U.S. investigators first became aware of the tunnel plot about one year ago.
"This is a plot that would have involved martyrdom, explosives and certain of the tubes that connect New Jersey with lower Manhattan. We are not discussing the modality beyond that," he said.
FBI agents apparently were tipped off about the plot by monitoring chat rooms used by extremists on the Internet.
Mershon says those allegedly involved were outside of the United States, and were disrupted in the planning stage of the operation.
"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. And at that point, I think, it is entirely appropriate to take it down," he added.
Authorities say they have identified a total of eight people allegedly involved in the plot. Three of them are in custody in other countries, including a man described as the alleged mastermind of the operation, Assem Hammoud, who faces criminal charges in Lebanon.
Mershon says Hammoud is a member of al-Qaida, who has pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden.
The plot was first reported by the New York Daily News newspaper, which said the plotters planned to blow up the Holland Tunnel linking New Jersey highways with lower Manhattan in hopes of flooding New York's financial district.
But security officials said the alleged plotters only mentioned the PATH commuter train tunnels that run between New York and New Jersey under the Hudson River.
Daily News reporter James Gordon Meek said the terrorists' alleged desire to flood New York's financial district by attacking the Holland Tunnel would likely have failed.
"The engineers and geologists we consulted said that this would be almost impossible to do, because lower Manhattan is about 10 feet [three meters] above sea level, and the tunnel is below, so the river waters would not flood lower Manhattan," he explained. "That means that this was not a feasible plot, but that does not mean that the people who were planning it were not serious."
FBI and other security officials are upset that someone leaked word of the plot to the newspaper, fearing it will complicate the investigation to find those involved.
At the same time, officials hailed cooperation from Lebanon and several other countries they did not identify in connection with uncovering the plot.
This is New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
"First, that we are able to disrupt plots such as this as a result of good intelligence and very close cooperation with law enforcement throughout the world. And, secondly, that New York still remains in the crosshairs of the terrorists," said Mr. Kelly.
Mark Mershon of the FBI says those involved in the tunnel plot were planning to carry out the attack by October or November of this year.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says federal and local security officials remain focused on areas where risk of terrorism is greatest, including mass transit systems in major U.S. cities.