WASHINGTON -- The alleged mastermind of a plot to bomb train tunnels connecting New York City and New Jersey also discussed blowing up subway cars in Manhattan, and even toyed with the idea of setting a wildfire in California, U.S. counterterrorism officials said yesterday.
U.S. and Lebanese officials said they learned about the discussions between Assem Hammoud and several co-conspirators by monitoring e-mail traffic on a Web site used by Islamic militants, and by scouring Hammoud's computer and his Beirut, Lebanon, home and office after his arrest April 27.
Such discussions, U.S. authorities said, suggest that Hammoud and up to seven other accomplices were still searching for ways to strike the United States when the plot was disrupted.
Two U.S. intelligence officials said that so far, no evidence indicates that the men were about to enter an operational phase.
Hammoud, 31, has been charged in Lebanon as the alleged mastermind, and authorities there say he has confessed to his role and to pledging allegiance to al-Qaida. Two other men are being held in undisclosed sites overseas, and authorities have linked five others to the alleged plot.
The U.S. intelligence official said U.S. authorities were trying to reconcile their intelligence with claims by Lebanese authorities that Hammoud had ties to al-Qaida and was intent on launching an attack. But, the official cautioned, "There is good reason to be skeptical about how far along this had gone. ... It was in large part jihadist bravado."
"They had no logistical arrangements, they certainly hadn't done the kind of thorough intelligence check, they didn't have explosives," said the second intelligence official, adding that comments about an al-Qaida connection to the plot appear to be somewhat overblown as well.
A federal law enforcement official said Hammoud had visited relatives near San Francisco in 2000, but said authorities had found no connections between that visit and any alleged terrorist activity or planning.