NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iraq has “credible” intelligence that Islamic State militants plan to attack subway systems in Paris and the United States, the prime minister said on Thursday, but U.S. and French officials said they had no evidence to back up his claims.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s comments were met with surprise by security, intelligence and transit officials in both countries. New York’s leaders scrambled to ride the subway to reassure the public that the nation’s largest city was safe.
Abadi said he received the information Thursday morning from militants captured in Iraq and concluded it was credible after requesting further details. The attacks, he said, were plotted from inside Iraq by “networks” of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“They plan to have attacks in the metros of Paris and the U.S.,” Abadi told a small group of U.S. reporters while in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. “I asked for more credible information. I asked for names. I asked for details, for cities, you know, dates. And from the details I have received, yes, it looks credible.”
Some Iraqi officials in Baghdad questioned Abadi’s comments. One high-level Iraqi government official told Reuters it appeared to be based on “ancient intelligence.” Another called it “an old story.” Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
Abadi did not provide further details. A senior Iraqi official traveling with him later said Iraqi intelligence had uncovered “serious threats” and had shared this information with its allies’ intelligence agencies.
“A full assessment of the veracity of the intelligence and how far the plans have gone into implementation is ongoing,” the official said.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, said the United States had “not confirmed any specific threat.”
“What we’ve consistently said to the Iraqis is if they have information that is relevant to terrorist activity or terrorist plotting, that they can and should share that through our intelligence and law enforcement channels,” Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One from New York.
“We would certainly take seriously any information they are learning,” he said.
French security services also said they had no information confirming Abadi’s statement, a French government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other local officials suggested they were unfazed, updating their public schedules on Thursday to add trips on the city’s subway system to reassure millions of daily commuters.
“We are convinced New Yorkers are safe,” de Blasio said at a press conference at a lower Manhattan subway station as he stood alongside New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and George Venizelos, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The New York Police Department’s intelligence bureau found no specific, credible threat, de Blasio said.
Bratton said in response to Abadi’s comments that he sent more police to patrol subways and streets in the city which was already on high alert because of the U.N. meeting.
Joseph Sheehan, 44, from the city’s Queens borough, learned about the threats from the web. “They were checking bags earlier at the Port Authority. Seems like they do that at times of heightened alerts,” he said.
In Los Angeles, America’s second most populous city, law enforcement officials said that while no specific threat had been made to the transit system, they were working with federal authorities to monitor the situation and urged residents to remain vigilant.
Officials in Chicago and Washington also said they knew of no threats to their transit systems.
The United States and France have both launched air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led campaign to “degrade and destroy” the radical Sunni militant group, which has seized a third of both Iraq and Syria.
Abadi disclosed the intelligence while making a case for Western and Arab countries to join that campaign. “We want to increase the number of willing countries who would support this,” he said. “This is not military. This is intelligence. This is security. The terrorists have a massive international campaign. Don’t underestimate it.”
In the past, the United States had received threats that various militant groups were targeting transportation systems but there is no recent information about an imminent plan by Islamic State, one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Abadi also said that Iraq did not want to see foreign “boots on the ground,” but stressed the value of providing air cover, saying Iraq’s air force did not have sufficient capability.
He said Australia was “very interested” in participating, though he did not provide details. He also voiced optimism about a planned British parliament vote on Friday on the matter, saying “they reckon it will be successful.”
Earlier on Thursday, France said it would increase security on transport and in public places after a French tourist was killed in Algeria, and said it was ready to support all states that requested its help to fight terror.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Ian Simpson in Washington,; Frank McGurty, Steve Holland and Rodrigo Campos in New York, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles,; Nicolas Bertin in Paris and Ned Parker in Baghdad; Editing by Jason Szep, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney