The Strange Case of Professor Hammoud

Holland Tunnel plot has some unexplained discrepancies


Assem Hammoud, the Lebanese college teacher arrested for allegedly plotting with others to bomb underwater tunnels leading from Manhattan into New Jersey, was thought by his students to be a "drug addict." He had many girlfriends, drank alcohol, and, according to Lebanese judicial sources quoted by the Beirut newspaper Al-Safir, "pursued a very complex social lifestyle." All this, investigators are now saying, was part of a systematic effort to mislead those around him, since Hammoud, according to FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, "acknowledged pledging a bayat or allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, and he proclaims himself to be a member of Al-Qaeda."

According to American officials, the FBI uncovered the alleged plot in the summer of 2005, by monitoring email traffic and chat-room postings on Islamist websites. Hammoud, who taught business ethics and human resources at a university in Lebanon, was identified as the group's leader by the FBI, which then asked the Lebanese to track him. He was purportedly arrested in Beirut on April 27, according to the officials, though the announcement of his detention only came last week, when the New York Daily News broke the story.

Hammoud, who used the name "Amir Andalousi" (an Andalusian prince) on the Internet, was said to have told investigators he intended to conduct the attacks in October or November. He was apparently arrested two days before leaving on a four-month trip to Pakistan to train for the operation. The Lebanese also said he had been given light-weapons training with a Palestinian man in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon.

According to Al-Safir, other plotters were also recently arrested, including a Syrian seized in Libya, and a third man in Canada (though some reports said he was released for lack of evidence). The newspaper also affirmed, without citing a source, that other suspects were being sought out in the United Arab Emirates, Bosnia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Iran—including a Saudi, a Yemeni, a Jordanian, a Palestinian, and an Iranian Kurd, as well as a sixth man whose nationality remains unknown.

In fact much about the case remains unknown, and there are discrepancies between what Lebanese officials are saying, under the cover of anonymity, and what the FBI initially stated. For starters, when was Hammoud arrested? U.S. officials said April 27, but a Lebanese judicial source cited by Al-Safir says it was in early May. While U.S. officials described Hammoud as the leader of the bomb plot, a Lebanese source close to the investigation told Beirut's Daily Star that he was not: Hammoud "had an important role in the exposed terrorist network, but it was a Palestinian with European nationality who was the head of the gang," the official said.

Lebanese acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat didn't make Hammoud's role any more understandable when he was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that "Hammoud appeared to be reaching out to al-Qaeda and did not appear to have been assigned a specific mission by the group." Another Lebanese official told the paper, about the network of plotters, "It seems to us they are working as an independent group… It seems it was [Hammoud's] idea. He contacted many others by Internet." If all this is true, then there is far less clarity about the mission, or even about the relationship between the would-be terrorists and Al-Qaeda, than some news reports initially indicated.

Last weekend, Fatfat declared that the Lebanese had found incriminating information on Hammoud's computer, including "maps and bombing plans that were being prepared." He was more specific with the Washington Post, noting that his men had found a map "with a lot of details about New York." Unidentified sources, cited by the New York Daily News, claimed that the plotters had gotten maps of the underground passageways off the Department of Homeland Security's site. Homeland Security did not comment on the report, though if the allegation is true, it would truly bizarre for such sensitive information to be readily available on the website of a department tasked with preventing terrorist attacks. Nor is it likely that the plotters hacked into the Homeland Security's system, since they were not especially proficient with computers.

This came as some U.S. officials were relativizing the seriousness of the plot. The Los Angeles Times in its Monday edition cited an unnamed American intelligence source as saying: "There have been suggestions that this was a lot further along than it was. The bottom line is that there may have been less here than meets the eye."

The Hammoud affair is disturbing for several reasons. From the outset, U.S. officials sought to downplay the state of advancement of the conspiracy, even as Mershon described it as "the real deal." If it was the real deal, then why can't the Lebanese and Americans even agree on who the mastermind was? Why can't they agree on whether Hammoud had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden or whether, as the Lebanese put it, he was an independent actor without a clear mission? And how does this all square with Fatfat's insistence that the Lebanese had found bombing plans?

Also, why can't anyone give a better explanation for Hammoud's decidedly un-Islamic lifestyle than the idea that he was a Muslim fanatic cunningly covering his tracks? Of course, the 9/11 Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah and his comrades were also Westernized in their habits, so one must accept that Hammoud could have been play-acting. Except that the 9/11 hijackers were part of a plan in motion and had to act Western to avoid attracting attention in the U.S. and Europe. Yet no one in Lebanon would have looked twice at Hammoud had he behaved religiously, since many young men do so. Indeed, he seems to have attracted more attention by being openly open-minded in his habits than the contrary.

More problematic is that up to now evidently the only sources for Hammoud's admissions of guilt are Lebanese officials—with no independent confirmation of what he supposedly said. Why might this be a problem? Because it is in the interest of the Lebanese government to convince the Bush administration that it helped the U.S. crack a big terrorism case. This has domestic Lebanese implications. The Hammoud investigation was conducted by the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces, which is headed by an ally of Saad Hariri (the son of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri), to whose parliamentary bloc Fatfat belongs. Since Rafiq Hariri's murder last year and the withdrawal of Syrian forces, the Hariri camp has been on the defensive against Syria and its Lebanese allies. It has reacted by consolidating relations with Washington, and a case like Hammoud's offers a golden opportunity to do the U.S. a favor.

That's not so say that Hammoud is innocent, and the fact that six countries cooperated in the investigation indicates it may be stronger than a cursory reading of the press indicates. However, until more comes out, it is worth bearing in mind that the information released about Hammoud might be colored by Lebanese political calculations. It would help if his confession is confirmed by a legal representative. Hammoud seems not to have a lawyer—at least no one has spoken on his behalf except his mother, who said that he told her he was innocent. Nor is it clear whether Hammoud authenticated his interrogation statement, which was sent to the FBI, according to Al-Safir.

It would be unfair to accuse the Lebanese and American authorities of manipulating the Hammoud case before more evidence emerges to confirm or refute this. But there are holes in the indictment, and until they are closed, we should keep an open mind as to what happened.