Lebanese authorities found maps and bombing plans on the personal computer of an al Qaeda loyalist accused of plotting to attack New York train tunnels, and a U.S. official disclosed that he had visited the country at least once.
Acting Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat described the information found on 31-year-old Assem Hammoud's computer as "very important."
"It contained maps and bombing plans that were being prepared," Fatfat said in a local television interview.
In the U.S., a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said Hammoud had visited the United States at least once — a trip to California six years ago.
The official said Hammoud had a legitimate visa for a brief stay, and was believed to have been visiting either family or friends. The visit occurred long before authorities say the tunnel plot began to unfold.
Authorities are still trying to trace Hammoud's steps during that trip but say they have no record of him going to New York. They have not ruled out the possibility that Hammoud had come to the country using different names.
The FBI said the suspects are alleged to have planned to attack trains under the Hudson River using suicide bombers and backpack bombs. The plan, which authorities said the suspects hoped to carry out in October or November, was to flood lower Manhattan by attacking the tunnels — used by tens of thousands of commuters each day.
But the plot was only in the planning stages, and the suspects had not purchased any explosives or traveled to the U.S. as part of the scheme.
"We received information from the FBI in April about an attempt to plot a terror act in New York City through Internet communications in Lebanon," Fatfat said in the interview Saturday. "Based on this information, security forces acted and arrested Mr. Assem Hammoud."
Officials said Hammoud confessed to the plot, and to swearing allegiance to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart reports one senior official said the plans were mere "jihadist bravado."
The senior official tells Stewart that the men arrested are "far less threatening and dangerous than the Canadian cell," and unlike the Torrance, Calif., cell, which had begun conducting holdups to further their terrorist plans, these individuals had done nothing but talk over the Internet.
Stewart reports his sources say that no one in the United States ever took part in the Internet conversations and that no one ever purchased any explosives or scouted the transit system.
The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported that a Syrian suspect had been lured to Libya and arrested there, along with a third suspect whose nationality was unknown.
Other suspects still at large include a Saudi, a Yemeni, a Jordanian, a Palestinian, and an Iranian Kurd, As-Safir said.
The suspect's family denied that he had any al Qaeda links. His mother, Nabila Qotob, said Hammoud was an outdoorsy person who drank alcohol, had girlfriends and bore none of the hallmarks of an Islamic extremist.
Montreal's Concordia University confirmed Sunday, that Hammoud studied in Canada for seven years. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce in 2002, majoring in finance and minoring in international business, said university spokesperson Chris Mota.