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New York was 'close to a disaster' from suicide bomb plot

Officials probe suspects' possible links to Hamas

August 1, 1997
Web posted at: 7:44 p.m. EDT (2344 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Three Middle Eastern men found Thursday with a cache of explosives in a Brooklyn apartment may have been days away from an attack on a New York subway station, officials said Friday.

"It looks like they were going to set off a suicide bomb and try to make the point that the United States and Israel are wrong, and strike against U.S. and Jewish interests," said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"I think we were close to a disaster," said FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom. "It didn't happen, and that's the good news."

Federal charges have been filed against two of the men arrested following a shootout with police. A third man was being held at the request of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, on the grounds that he was in the country illegally.

One suspect reportedly applied for U.S. asylum

U.S. authorities were investigating to see whether there are any links between the men arrested in Brooklyn and Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic organization based in the Middle East. Factions of Hamas have been linked to terrorist acts, including Wednesday's bombing in a Jerusalem market that killed 15 people.

However, top law enforcement officials involved in the New York investigation have cautioned that no clear link exists so far between the men and any known terrorist group.

A senior law enforcement official told CNN that one of the men being held in New York, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, had filled out an application for political asylum in the United States. In it, he indicated that he had been accused by Israeli authorities of belonging to Hamas.

He claimed he had been tortured by the Israelis for his alleged Hamas involvement. However, he did not indicate that he belonged to the group.

In Gaza, Mahmoud Aza'har, a Hamas spokesman, denied that Hamas had anything to do with the suspected plot to set off bombs in the subway system.

"We are not looking for any activity against American targets in America or around the world. We don't believe this story is true, and we are denying Hamas involvement in this," Aza'har said.

Raid followed roommate tip

Police raided an apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn early Thursday morning after being tipped off by a man who said his "roommates want to follow up on Jerusalem."

Officers shot Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil after one of them allegedly made a move to detonate the explosive devices. Inside the apartment, police found five bomb components, which could have been used as separate bombs or in combination for a larger explosion, according to New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

Federal charges have been filed against Abu Mezer, 23, and Khalil, 22, both of whom were reportedly traveling on Jordanian passports.

A criminal complaint released by prosecutors states that an address book in possession of one of the suspects contains the name of a "known terrorist organization" and that the suspects have admitted that the target of the attack was to be the New York subway.

In addition to the third suspect being held for the INS, two others detained by police were questioned and let go.

In Hebron, Noor Abu Mezer, Abu Mezer's brother, said he was shocked by the news of his brother's arrest. Noor described his brother as "a nonviolent person and a person who loves peace." He added, "It's impossible my brother would do something like that."

Noor, who is a lawyer, said his brother left the troubled West Bank town "to get away from the suffering of the people who are living here. He was looking for a good future for himself."

Clinton: Don't jump to conclusions

Clinton

In Washington, President Clinton declined to comment on any possible connections between the Brooklyn arrests and terrorism in the Middle East, saying, "It's important not to reach conclusions before we have iron-clad evidence to support them."

But Giuliani said the case points out the need to tighten immigration controls, saying someone accused of having ties to Hamas, as Abu Mezer admitted in his asylum application, should not have been let into the country.

"It makes no sense to parole into the United States somebody who is alleged to be part of a terrorist organization," he said. "How about from now on, we don't do it, and we'll be a lot safer."

However, Justice Department officials in Washington said their strong impression was that Abu Mezer's application for political asylum had never been filed.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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