The recent disruption of a developing terrorist plot to destroy an underwater tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York City and inundate lower Manhattan offers an opportunity to assess the impact of Osama bin Laden’s decade-plus effort to inspire others to undertake operations against the United States and its allies without al-Qaeda’s direct help or guidance. Of all bin Laden’s aims for al-Qaeda, the instigation or inspiration of other Muslims to jihad always has been his top priority. Claiming that he, after all, is only one Muslim, and that al-Qaeda is at best a vanguard organization, bin Laden has explained that al-Qaeda’s goal of driving the United States as far as possible from the Middle East can only be achieved if other Muslims decide on their own to form groups, pick up arms and fight the “Crusaders.” The information so far available about the New York City plot appears to follow the model bin Laden has been encouraging since 1996.
The plot that was disrupted in the first week of July was still in the planning stages and was led by a 31-year-old Lebanese national named Assem Hammoud. Living in Beirut when arrested, Hammoud is a 2002 graduate in commerce of Concordia University in Montreal and was teaching economics, business ethics and human resources at the Lebanese International University. As has been the case with other individuals involved in recently broken up al-Qaeda-inspired cells, Hammoud was living a normal life, had no police record and had an extended family, none of whom seems to have known of his radical tendencies. Hammoud’s mother told the media that her son “drinks alcohol, had girlfriends and showed no similarities to Islamic militants”; Hammoud’s family apparently was not aware that he had received small-arms training at Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon. Hammoud had traveled to the United States on several occasions, but the FBI has said that none of those trips “had anything to do with this plot” .
Assem Hammoud—who was using the alias Amer al-Andalusi—appears to have been the leader of an entirely “virtual” would-be terrorist operation. Accounts to date show that Hammoud and seven other individuals had joined together to plan a suicide attack on a tunnel connecting New Jersey and lower Manhattan. The group had never met as a unit, and instead had communicated via the internet and was spread over three continents. Three of the eight are now under arrest: Hammoud, an unnamed Syrian and an individual of undisclosed nationality. Hammoud was arrested by Lebanese security in April under an Interpol warrant, but Lebanese officials said that they did not announce his seizure because of a request from the United States. The FBI has said that the five others involved in the plot—a Saudi, a Yemeni, a Jordanian, a Palestinian and an Iranian Kurd—have been “largely identified” but have not been apprehended .
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have underscored that the Hammoud-led plot was very much still in the planning stages; no explosives had been acquired, financial support was not apparent and none of the plotters had visited New York. Indeed, Hammoud himself is reported to have been planning a four-month visit to an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan to acquire the requisite talents to conduct the operation. Some reports claim Hammoud was arrested two days before he was to leave for Pakistan. That said, the FBI reported that Hammoud had set the attack for October or November 2006 and Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said on July 8 that Hammoud admitted “to his role in plotting a major terrorist act in America,” and added that “the information found in Hammoud’s personal computer was very important because it contained maps and bombing plans that were being prepared.” The media has reported that some of the maps used by Hammoud for targeting areas in New York City had been downloaded from the DHS website. In a comment on the arrests, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, “we did not wait, and we do not wait, until the fuse is lit; we swoop in as early as possible…There was never a concern that this [plot] would actually be executed” .
While Chertoff’s assessment appears entirely accurate, there is, in its “case closed” tenor, the danger of overlooking what might be the most troubling dimension of the now-disrupted plot: the trend of incidents that suggest the growing success of bin Laden’s campaign of inspiration. While there is not yet any information showing a direct connection between the plotters and al-Qaeda, Assem Hammoud told his Lebanese interrogators that he had been motivated by the example of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s attacks, and that he was acting “on a religious order from bin Laden.” For instance, Hammoud told the Lebanese: “I am proud to carry out his orders” .
Hammoud and his crew appear to be yet another terrorist cell that coalesced and made plans to attack because of the inspiration provided by bin Laden’s words and deeds. The list of such cells is growing quickly, with the Hammoud-led team joining other groups that have been broken up since November 2005 in Miami, London, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney. In addition, the groups that attacked in London in July 2005 and in Madrid in March 2003 were also inspired rather than controlled by al-Qaeda. All told, the growing prominence of what are too often dismissed as clumsy, “wanna-be” terror cells may well be a sign that bin Laden’s steady attempts at igniting a worldwide anti-U.S. fire are catching hold in terms of operational planning by groups that are entirely independent of al-Qaeda’s command and control.
The takedown of Hammoud’s cell and the other groups noted above also points to the success of al-Qaeda’s stated goal of “spreading out” the intelligence and security services of the United States and its allies, with the goal of making it easier for al-Qaeda itself to operate against U.S. interests. In the case of the Hammoud operation, the FBI and New York City Police Department have said that the investigation process was underway for a year, and involved six foreign intelligence services on three continents. In addition, a great deal of the investigative work appears to have been done via the prolonged surveillance of internet chat rooms. In other words, officers from FBI, NYPD, DHS, six foreign security services and presumably other U.S. intelligence organizations were involved in an intense, year-long investigation into a group of would-be terrorists which could not be remotely identified as being in al-Qaeda’s league in terms of talent and professionalism. Thus, the al-Qaeda-inspired Hammoud cell advanced al-Qaeda’s goals not only by acting on bin Laden’s rhetoric to plan an independent attack on U.S. interests inside the United States, but also by focusing a considerable amount of U.S. manpower and technology against a less-lethal target than al-Qaeda for at least 12 months. In sum, the Hammoud cell is an instance where bin Laden’s plans to incite Muslims to jihad and spread out U.S. counter-terrorism resources appear to have been successful.
1. Daniel Trotta and Gray Crosse, “U.S. says foreign-based plot to bomb New York foiled,” Reuters, July 7, 2002; Douglas J. Hagmann and Judy McLeod, “A Detailed Overview of the 2006 New York Tunnel Bombing Plot,” London Free Press, July 11, 2006; “Lebanon says suspect admitted NYC plot; family says he loved to have fun,” Associated Press, July 7, 2006; James Gordon Meek and Alison Gendar, “Friends were on track to Murder,” New York Daily News, July 7, 2006; Tom Hays, “Terror suspects targeted flood wall in NYC,” Associated Press, July 14, 2006.
2. Al Baker and William K. Rashbaum, “Plot to bomb N.Y. tunnels is foiled,” New York Times, July 8, 2006; “Lebanese authorities find maps, bombing plans in al-Qaeda suspect’s computer,” Khaleej Times, July 9, 2006; James Gordon Meek, “Playboy’s Life: Girls and Booze,” New York Daily News, July 7, 2006; Michael Young, “The Strange Case of Professor Hammoud,” Hawaii Reporter, July 16, 2006.
3. Oliver Moore, “Canadian linked to New York terrorism plot,” Toronto Globe and Mail, July 9, 2006; Khaleej Times, op. cit.; New York Times, op. cit.
4. Khaleej Times, op. cit.