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    PATH terror foiled   

Saturday, July 8, 2006  By DAVID A. MICHAELS and KATHLEEN CARROLL STAFF WRITERS

 


A worldwide investigation has uncovered an al-Qaida loyalist's plan to blow up the PATH train tunnels under the Hudson River, thwarting a terrorist conspiracy the FBI called "the real deal," authorities said Friday. The alleged mastermind has been arrested.

"The individuals were moving forward," said Special Agent Mark J. Mershon, assistant director of the FBI's New York office. They "were about to go to a phase where they would attempt to surveil targets, establish a regimen of attack and then acquire the resources necessary to effectuate the attacks."

Mershon identified the plan's mastermind as Assem Hammoud, a 31-year-old Lebanese citizen who swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Lebanese authorities, who learned of his plan through Internet communications, arrested him April 27, according to a statement by Lebanese police.

The attack was scheduled for October or November, the FBI said. The planning involved at least seven other conspirators, two of whom were in the custody of foreign governments, Mershon said. The investigation involved intelligence officials in six countries.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the plot ranked as the most credible threat he had learned of since becoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee 10 months ago.

"It was a real threat and one of the hardest to control," King said. "With subways and commuter railways, there is no way you can have inspectors at every subway or commuter train entrance."

Disclosure of the plan came a week before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is scheduled to introduce new, high-tech security measures at Jersey City's Exchange Place PATH Station, and exactly one year after suicide bombers killed 52 people on London's subways.

Mershon said authorities first learned of the PATH plot "almost exactly a year ago."

Flood part of plan

Hammoud's arrest was first disclosed Friday in The New York Daily News, which reported that his group hoped to flood lower Manhattan by bombing the Holland Tunnel.

Mershon did not completely disavow the report, but said the eight men "had referenced specifically only the PATH tunnels." He later added: "This is a plot that would have involved martyrdom, explosives and certain of the tubes that connect New Jersey to lower Manhattan."

A bomb placed in a PATH train could breach the tunnel and flood lower Manhattan, officials said. A recessed foundation at the former World Trade Center site, known as "the bathtub," protects buildings and the subway tunnels from the Hudson River.

"If [an explosion] affected the bathtub that protects lower Manhattan from the Hudson, that could be devastating," King said.

Although they stressed the plan's seriousness, authorities said the suspects had not secured any explosives and had not set foot on American soil.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took pains to stress that the city was safe. Indeed, life proceeded normally Friday morning, even as commuters woke to learn about the latest threat to the country's largest metropolis.

About six Port Authority police officers stood guard Friday at the Holland Tunnel entrance in New York and pulled over vans and trucks every few minutes. Each time, drivers opened the backs of their trucks to allow a quick inspection by the police.

"Before Sept. 11th, I would think all this is paranoia," said Ken Lewis, a 50-year-old from New Rochelle, who was in the city on business. "After Sept. 11th, I believe the potential exists for anything."

At the Grove Street PATH station in Jersey City, several commuters said the news shook up their routine and complained that police officers were not visible enough.

"The PATH is still very bleak -- security-wise and in general," said Daniel Mitchell, a wine merchant from Jersey City. "It's rare that you see someone after hours down on the platform."

Said Katy Ryan, a Jersey City resident who owns a bar in New York's East Village: "[The] PATH train, as transportation, is so reliable, but there's almost no security."

Port Authority officials said they have added about 600 police officers since the 9/11 attacks.

Anthony R. Coscia, the authority's chairman, said the agency is striving to balance new security measures with the need to permit open and efficient movement on the trains.

"A system that gives a greater level of comfort to every person on the train system is something we have to evolve toward," Coscia said.

New York and New Jersey officials said disclosure of the plot underscores the need for more federal aid for local anti-terror programs. New York's funding was cut 40 percent this year, although the government increased the region's railway security grant by almost $10 million this week.

"If this is going to be a priority, we should spare no expense in order to get it done," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-Paterson, a member of the House Transportation and Homeland Security committees.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said the competition for federal money is intense.

"Nearly five years after 9/11, we're still waiting for transit and transportation security," he said.

King said the debate over federal funding was especially frustrating because New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and others knew of the PATH plot but could not disclose it.

"We knew the DHS knew about it and were still cutting [funding]," King said.

Staff Writers Scott Fallon and Carolyn Feibel contributed to this article, which also contains material from The Associated Press. E-mail: michaels@northjersey.com and carroll@northjersey.com


Fast facts

The PATH rail system is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It connects Hudson County with 33rd Street, lower Manhattan and Newark.

Opened as the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad "Hudson Tubes" in 1908; re-established as PATH in 1962.

215,115 trips taken every weekday.

60.7 million trips taken in 2005.


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