The alleged threat that led to heightened security on New York City subways last week may have been a hoax on the part of an Iraqi informant attempting to get money in exchange for information, U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.
The informant has since disappeared in Iraq, and the Defense Department has been unable to locate him, U.S. and New York City officials said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the informant’s claims last week as the “most specific threat” ever received against the city’s transit system, leading officials to issue a heightened terrorist alert and flood the subways with police and National Guard troops.
U.S. troops in Iraq also captured three suspects south of Baghdad who the informant said were involved in the alleged plot.
But none of the suspects, including two who were given polygraph examinations, corroborated the informant’s allegations or appeared to have any connection to a terrorist plot, according to intelligence officials.
The city lifted the terror alert Monday after the time period identified by the informant passed without incident.
Officials with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were highly skeptical of the threat from the beginning, though federal officials sought to downplay any differences with New York City authorities.
The informant, who approached U.S. authorities voluntarily in Baghdad within the past two weeks, detailed an alleged plot by some 20 international suspects to attack the New York transit system over the weekend with bomb-laden suitcases, baby strollers and other items.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that the source of the threat information is not in U.S. custody. A military officer following the case said that the Iraqi informant has broken off communications with American intelligence agents.
“We don’t seem to have contact with him at the present time,” the officer said. “He appears to be in hiding or on the run.”
Homeland Security department spokesman Russ Knocke, who called the threat “noncredible” last week, declined to elaborate Tuesday. “The intelligence community has not found any evidence to substantiate the threat information,” Knocke said. The FBI also declined to comment in detail.
Bloomberg, who is running for re-election in November, on Tuesday defended the city’s decision to ratchet up security. At a news conference, he said that officials had little choice but to respond to such detailed claims.
“This was a planned attack that had a specific time and target and method,” Bloomberg said. “It was the first really serious allegation of a direct attack on this city since” the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Several U.S. intelligence officials said that once it became clear that none of the informant’s claims about New York could be corroborated, authorities began exploring the possibility that he had purposely invented the story to curry favor or receive financial rewards. One U.S. government official said, “The hoax angle is the leading theory right now.”
Some counterterrorism experts noted last week that elements of the alleged plot bore similarities to the July 7 subway bombings in London and the attempted July 21 attack there. The government official also said that at least one Latin American militant group has been blamed for using a baby stroller in a terrorist attack and similar plans have also been described in works of fiction.