Investigating a tip that terrorists planned to blow up one of two tunnels running beneath Baltimore's harbor, authorities temporarily shut down Interstate 95 - the East Coast's major north-south artery - yesterday to aid the search for suspects.
The threat, described by federal officials as specific but unsubstantiated, claimed that an Egyptian man living in the Baltimore area was plotting to drive a bomb-laden vehicle into one of the tunnels and detonate the explosives.
At least six Egyptian terrorists planned to smuggle the explosives into the Port of Baltimore by ship, according to a tipster. Agents searched a Southeast Baltimore market and two pizza restaurants and detained four men - three Egyptians and a Jordanian - on immigration violations.
But that same informant had a "questionable" performance on a polygraph and his story has not been corroborated by others, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
State officials defended the decision by Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary McLhinney to close I-95 at the Fort McHenry Tunnel for about an hour and Interstate 895 at the Harbor Tunnel for two hours starting at 11:30 a.m. Police acted without warning motorists, rerouting traffic and searching cars and trucks. The closures and heightened security measures rippled into widespread gridlock at midday.
About 115,000 vehicles use the eight-lane Fort McHenry Tunnel, completed in 1985, on an average day, and 71,000 use the four-lane Harbor Tunnel, built in 1957.
Both sunken tubes are about 1.5 miles long and serve as vital links in the highway system that carries traffic in and around Baltimore.
"We were obviously at some risk, some danger that the tunnel was part of this operation but not the sole part of this operation," Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told CNN yesterday after an afternoon news conference.
Federal law enforcement officials were more cautious in their assessments. The special agent in charge of Baltimore's FBI office, Kevin Perkins, described the tip as a "threat of undetermined credibility to an unspecified tunnel in the Baltimore area."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his police command staff expressed frustration that they had been included in every aspect of the investigation - including locating of suspects in the city - but that they were not told of the state's decision to close the tunnels.
The mayor said he and his staff learned of the shutdowns from news reports.
Search for suspects
Both state and federal officials described the surprise tunnel closures as essential in their coordinated efforts to give federal agents time to search for suspects, including at Koko Market in Highlandtown and two pizza restaurants, one in Dundalk.
"The information was somewhat specific as to date and time, and this required appropriate investigation follow-up to be conducted," Perkins said. "At this point, no evidence collected to date has corroborated the threat as it's going on. However, the investigation is still ongoing."
Nonetheless, Perkins stood by state officials, saying, "The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with our other state and local partners, fully support the actions that had to be taken to protect the citizens of Maryland."
Federal authorities were detaining at least four men last night on immigration violations, including an Egyptian man who worked at Koko. All four men held in custody had previously been ordered deported from the United States but had failed to comply, immigration officials said.
Officials did not immediately release their names.
Yesterday's decision to shut I-95, one of Maryland's busiest highways, through its largest city marked the state's most dramatic anti-terrorism effort since Sept. 11, 2001. Questions immediately emerged about whether the decision to close the highway and tunnels matched the credibility of the threat.
A similar threat against the New York City subway system prompted city officials to step up security efforts in the public transit system Oct. 6, a measure later scaled back because of the unreliability of the threat's source.
In the tunnel investigation, the "source's credibility is unknown but the source has voluntarily provided information with the perceived expectation of receiving special treatment for unrelated criminal activity conducted overseas," said one federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
O'Malley said he could not discuss the credibility of the threat.
But the mayor did say "I am not aware, nor is the police commissioner, of any evidence that has been obtained to corroborate the credibility or the degree of the threat."
Word of a potential attack on Maryland's transportation system also brought back memories of a Virginia man with connection to the Palestinian group Hamas who had been arrested after his wife videotaped the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland last year.
Federal officials at that time believed the taping could have been "reconnaissance and surveillance" for a terrorist attack.
Federal prosecutors confirmed that the man, Ismail Selim Elbarasse, has not been charged with a crime, although they have declined to comment on his role in a pending federal court case in Chicago against three defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes.
It also marks at least the third time in three months that authorities in the Baltimore region have arrested or detained suspects as part of a terrorism investigation.
Federal law enforcement officials said the information about the tunnel threat came from an informant now held in a European country.
The informant attempted to enter the United States and is being detained because of his own immigration problems, officials said.
The investigation that closed the tunnels has been active since at least late last week, but the final decision to close the tubes was made yesterday by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, who were concerned that the suspects might act as word of the investigation got out.
McLhinney, the authority's police chief, explained his decision by saying, "The number one priority is the safety of the citizens of Maryland who are traveling on our roadways."
He added: "We will always err on the side of public safety. ... We have not found anything that causes us great concern at this point."
Jim Pettit, a spokesman for the governor's office of homeland security, said that officials acted "out of an abundance of caution."
According to sources familiar with the investigation, one of the detained men is associated with Koko market in the 6000 block of Eastern Ave.
About a half-dozen FBI officials showed up at the market yesterday, according to two residents of the neighborhood.
Richard Knott, who described himself as a close friend of store owner Maged Hussein, said that when he entered the store in the early afternoon, a man in a suit ordered him to leave. The door was then locked and a "closed" sign was taped to it, he said.
Ed Andrews said he saw men in suits take Hussein away in an unmarked car that had been parked in an alley next to Andrews' home on Dundalk Avenue.
A federal immigration official said Hussein was not among the four suspects held last night on immigration charges.
Hussein, who is also an Egyptian immigrant, had operated the store for 10 years and had a wife and two children. He displayed American flags in his windows.
He said he had been questioned by federal authorities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, according to his landlord's son.
"He had the same situation happen when 9/11 happened, and they never found anything," said the son, Loukas Loukakis. "The FBI just came. He was willing to talk to them to clear his name and everything."
Employees at Didi's Pizzeria Restaurant and Carryout off Holaview Road said FBI agents were at the store for several hours, asking questions about employees who worked there.
A man who identified himself as the manager said they visited the Didi's Pizzeria in Essex. The man, who would not reveal his name, said the FBI agents would not speak about the nature of their investigation.
These searches started before authorities reopened portions of I-95 and the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels about 1:30 p.m.
The area most immediately affected during the closures was I-95 near the tunnels and Key Highway, near the Port of Baltimore.
Police were seen stopping trucks and vans and searching with dogs. At the Fort McHenry Tunnel, police barricaded lanes and then ushered the public out of an office near the tolls.
"One of the issues that people don't understand is we get a lot of this," said one federal law enforcement official in Washington familiar with terrorism investigations.
"There is a lot of footwork that goes behind these things either trying to validate or invalidate the information. It's up to the local authorities and the elected officials to make determinations based on the information they have."
Terrorism investigations becoming public are not unheard-of in the Baltimore region.
In August, federal authorities detained suspects from the Baltimore area as part of two anti-terrorism investigations. Law enforcement officials said the two cases appear to be unrelated, adding that there is also no link to the alleged tunnel plot.
Federal prosecutors charged Mahmud F. Brent, a 30-year-old West Baltimore man who drove a cab in Washington, with conspiring to help the armed wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based organization labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
He was arrested in New Jersey and continues to be held on the terrorism-related charges in New York, federal prosecutors said.
Days later, a Pakistani citizen whose name surfaced in a terrorism-related database after he was picked up in a routine traffic stop in Baltimore County faced federal charges of selling fake immigration documents. Muhammad Asif Haider, 27, of New York City remains in federal custody.
Taken in stride
Most motorists interviewed yesterday appeared to take in stride closing roads because authorities were concerned about a potential attack.
Ken White, a truck driver, was heading from Aberdeen to Jessup to deliver 170 cases of guacamole to a Giant supermarket when traffic came to a standstill that he estimated at three hours.
When it became clear that traffic wouldn't start moving any time soon, White chatted with other stranded drivers and took his 7-week-old boxer puppy for a walk on the side of the highway.
"If you can't deal with traffic, then you're in the wrong business," he said from a truck stop in Jessup. "It darn sure wouldn't be good to get mad or upset about - it isn't going to move it."
Sun reporters Michael Dresser, Lynn Anderson, Josh Mitchell, Rona Marech, Doug Donovan, John Fritze, Gus Sentementes, Nicole Fuller and Laura Barnhardt contributed this article. Reporter Siobhan Gorman contributed from Washington.