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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Canada link probed in N.Y. plot

Canadian Press: Suspects planned to blow up tunnels; Man questioned, released in Canada

OTTAWA—Authorities believe a Canadian co-conspirator was involved in the alleged plot to blow up New York tunnels and submerge lower Manhattan under a torrent of flood waters.

Canadian police questioned a man they suspect of active involvement in the conspiracy, but he was released because there wasn't enough evidence to hold him beyond the period of interrogation, the Canadian Press has learned.

CTV News reported that the man was from Montreal.

CTV also said Canadian authorities are looking into whether alleged ringleader Assem Hammoud ever spent time in Canada. Hammoud was detained in Lebanon on April 6 and interrogated by the FBI.

And CBC News reported that in Lebanon, Hammoud's mother said her son had a Canadian girlfriend and had visited her there.

In Washington, U.S. authorities said yesterday they had uncovered a terrorist plot to attack transit systems linking New York City and New Jersey.

Initial reports said that terrorists wanted to attack the Holland Tunnel, a major thoroughfare for cars entering Manhattan. But officials said yesterday the group had specifically mentioned only the PATH commuter train tunnels.

Canadian authorities are involved in a six-country investigation into the alleged plot and are actively pursuing leads, sources with knowledge of the investigation said yesterday. Other suspects were scattered over three continents.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day refused to comment on any police work being done in Canada on the case.

"At this point ... I'll refrain from comment on that not to impair any of the investigation," Day said in Toronto, where he was announcing Canada's role in stopping terrorism financing and money laundering.

Day said the suspects could be from anywhere because terrorists don't respect borders.

"One thing that we know is that people who plan these despicable deeds, they know no boundaries," he said. "They can come from any part of the globe."

In Calgary for the annual Stampede, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was equally mum.

"I don't have any comment on that. I'd have to get further briefed on that before I said anything," Harper said.

Canada was recently thrust into the counterterrorism spotlight when 12 men and five youths, all from the Toronto area, were charged last month in an alleged plot to attack targets in southern Ontario.

Associated Press reported that an unidentified U.S. law enforcement official said one of the suspects is believed to be Canadian, but had no apparent links to the 17 people arrested last month.

The FBI's case reportedly started with monitoring of Internet chat rooms frequented by extremists, the same way the Toronto investigation into the 17 allegedly began.

New Yorkers were steadying themselves to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks when word of the alleged tunnel plot was made public by the New York Daily News.

FBI assistant director Mark Mershon said Hammoud had sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda. Mershon said there were eight key figures in the plot and that two others were taken into custody outside the United States, but added that none had yet been charged.

Mershon refused to say if one of those key figures was in Canada.

"We're not prepared without charges to discuss the level of co-operation or identify those countries," he said at a news conference in New York.

The FBI said the alleged conspirators planned to use tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey as giant funnels that would cascade water from the Hudson River into New York's financial district.

Investigators believe such an attack on certain tunnels could have achieved that goal.

"This is a plot that involved martyrdom and explosives" and focused on the "tubes that connect Jersey and lower Manhattan," Mershon said.

He said the scheme was discovered before any of the alleged plotters had a chance to buy explosives or begin the surveillance leading to more detailed planning. "The plot had matured to the point where the individuals were about to go to a phase where they would attempt to survey targets, establish a regimen of attacks and acquisition of the resources needed to effectuate the attacks," Mershon said.

The Daily News said the terrorists wanted to turn lower Manhattan into a mirror image of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The newspaper reported that dialogue from the chat rooms suggested the plotters spoke of swamping the U.S. economy.

The Holland Tunnel is protected not just by bedrock, but also by concrete and cast-iron steel.

U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said the uncovering of the alleged plot is a testimony to the level of international intelligence-sharing in the face of the threat from Al Qaeda and its allies.

"As we get better intelligence coverage, we are able to detect more things that are going on. And it is true that we try to intervene as early as possible," Chertoff said.

"Once there's a basis to determine that someone has violated the law and poses a potential threat, we don't wait until they actually get to the final stages of a plan; we move very quickly."

Details of the plot emerged on the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people.

Officials said the timing of yesterday's report in relation to the anniversary was coincidental.

This week in a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, Stephen Harper chided the U.S. government for its proposed border restrictions, warning that if America becomes more isolated from its allies "the terrorists will have won."
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