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FBI: Three held in New York tunnel plot

Suspected ringleader posed as playboy, professor in Beirut

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- U.S. and international authorities disrupted a plot by eight terrorists to blow up a commuter train tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan, the FBI announced Friday.

Three of the eight men are in some form of custody, and the rest have been at least partially identified, FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon told reporters. The identity of one suspect, a 31-year-old Lebanese man, has been released.

Mershon said the plan was "what we believe was the real deal," a scheme involving al Qaeda members on three continents.

Mershon said none of the suspects has been to the United States. The investigation remains classified, he said. (Watch the FBI's Mershon reveal what links the plot had to bin Laden -- 3:29)

"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," Mershon said. "At that point I think it's entirely appropriate to take it down."

Although Mershon would not divulge extensive details of the plot, law enforcement sources said the suspects wanted to cross the Canadian border into the United States.

Once in New York City, they would board trains with backpacks full of explosives, which they planned to detonate when the trains passed through a tunnel under the Hudson River. Watch how the FBI tracked the plot from early on -- 1:52

The suspects discussed how much explosive material would be needed to breach the thick bedrock lining of the tunnels, the sources said.

Assem Hammoud is the only suspect who has been formally charged; he is in custody in Lebanon. Hammoud, who claims to be an al Qaeda member, has admitted to being the group's ringleader and has professed his loyalty to the terror network's leader, Osama bin Laden, Mershon said.

Playboy poseur

Hammoud, who also goes by the name Amir Andalousli, is a professor of computer studies at a private university in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, and he has been parading as a playboy with a party lifestyle as a cover for his extremism, Lebanese General Security spokesman Elie Baradei said.

"He was requested not to show any religious inclinations during his time in Lebanon and to give the impression of being of a playboy," Baradei said. "He has done that perfectly."

The FBI began investigating Hammoud and his alleged cohort about a year ago, when talk of a tunnel attack popped up in Internet chat rooms and in e-mail discussions, Baradei said. The FBI helped track the chatter to Hammoud, who admitted to sending detailed maps of the targeted Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, tunnel and plans for the attack to his co-conspirators, he said.

A Syrian national recruited Hammoud into the realm of terrorism in 2003, and Hammoud received weapons training at the Ain Helweh Refugee Camp, which was then located in Syria-controlled Lebanon, Baradei said.

Hammoud was arrested April 27 in his Beirut apartment in a sting coordinated with the FBI before a planned trip to Pakistan, where he was to undergo more training, according to a statement from the Lebanese Interior Security Service.

"He was living a life of fun and indulgence away from all suspicions," the statement said.

Hammoud, who faces no charges in the United States and thus cannot be extradited, will be tried in Lebanon on terrorism charges, said Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon's internal security forces.

An international effort

Mershon said six countries participated in the investigation. He would not say which countries, but sources said they include Canada, Pakistan and Iraq.

"The real story here is the symphony of cooperation and coordination not just in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, but frankly, around the world with a number of intelligence and investigative services," Mershon said. "It's beyond textbook; it's, in fact, been storybook."

Although the plot was in its preliminary stages, Mershon said the attack was slated to take place in October or November. Investigators moved in because they believed the suspects were about to begin assessing the target and obtaining explosives and other materials for the attack, he said.

Mershon would not name the specific tunnel but said it was one of the PATH tubes running under the Hudson River.

According to the port authority's Web site, "PATH presently carries 215,115 passengers each weekday." More than 60 million passengers used the system in 2005, the Web site states. There are five tunnels running beneath the Hudson. ( Watch officials explain the vulnerability of transit tunnels and crossings -- 1:39 )

The New York Daily News broke the story Friday morning, and Mershon expressed disappointment at what he called the "unprofessional behavior" of whomever leaked it to the paper.

The leaker was "clearly someone who doesn't understand the fragility of international relations," he said, adding that there have been a "number of uncomfortable questions" from the foreign intelligence services that participated in the investigation.

The FBI has been "working to shore up those relationships," Mershon said.

Friday marked the first anniversary of the London Underground bombings, in which four suicide bombers killed 52 people on the London subway and on a bus.

CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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