Web chat rooms center of FBI probe into terrorist plot

Agents say they uncovered plot by monitoring Internet postings.

On the first anniversary of the London terrorist attacks, U.S. security agents announced Friday they had disrupted a plot by terrorists to attack the New York transportation network. According to the Associated Press, FBI agents were able to discover the scheme through monitoring Internet chat rooms used by extremists.

The Homeland Security Department and the FBI issued statements early Friday stating that they had disrupted a terror network working closely with the Intelligence/Information Directorate within the Internal Security Forces of Lebanon and with other foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The plot against the New York transportation system was interrupted in its planning states, the agencies said.

FBI Assistant Director Michael Mershon said during an afternoon news conference that the agency worked with overseas intelligence services around the world to disrupt the plot. A 31-year-old Lebanese man, Assem Hammoud, was arrested in Lebanon and apparently confessed that he was the mastermind of the plot to attack subway that connects New Jersey with lower Manhattan, Mershon said.

The use of the Internet as a tool for terrorists has increased with the advent of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A State Department report released in May found that terrorist cells have become more sophisticated by employing advanced technologies that allow them to further globalize their messages.

Terrorist groups "use technology, especially the Internet, to improve their global reach, intelligence collection and operational capacity," Hank Crumpton, special coordinator for counterterrorism at State, said at a press briefing on April 28 when the report was released.

However, the use of Internet chat rooms by those with bad intentions can also help security agents track down potential terrorists.

"Terrorists who use open Internet chat rooms to communicate are no threat," because they are easy to find, said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a separate press conference that "we try to intervene as early as possible" at the very first sign of a plot. "One of the critical tools is that we have is the ability to intercept communications" such as those through the Internet.

Mershon said the unidentified individual who leaked the information to the public hurt U.S. relations with foreign intelligence services. Before the plot was intercepted, terrorists were close to starting the next phase, which would have included surveillance of the targets, said Mershon.

FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said the agency uses "numerous investigative techniques to track down terrorists" including "technology in all forms for investigations."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "This is one instance where intelligence was on top of its game and discovered the plot when it was just in the talking phase. But it once again illustrates how misguided Homeland Security's allocation of funds is. How many warnings does the department need about threats to New York until it changes its formula?"