A Brush With Terror

THE PLAN WAS TO BOMB A SUBWAY station in Brooklyn - and the big question, after New York police narrowly averted a catastrophic act of terrorism last week, was how the prime suspect had gotten into the country in the first place. Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Maizar, 24, a West Bank Palestinian, tried three times to enter the United States from Canada and was jailed last January by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington state. He then applied for political asylum because, he said, he would be persecuted by Israeli authorities. Despite all that, Abu Maizar was set free by a U.S. immigration judge in June after promising to leave the country voluntarily. He went to New York City instead - where, police said, he and another Palestinian immigrant built a powerful pipe bomb for a suicide attack much like last week's terror bombing in Jerusalem.

Tipped off by one of the suspects' friends, a heavily armed police SWAT team descended on their dingy Brooklyn apartment before dawn and caught Abu Maizar and 22-year-old Lafi Khalil sleeping. Both were shot and wounded when, according to police, they tried to trigger the bombs. One bomb was a nine-inch pipe packed with gunpowder, nails and 9mm bullets. The other was a four-pipe monstrosity that would have killed everyone within 25 feet if detonated in an enclosed space like a subway car. Police found hundreds of pages of Hamas propaganda and a portrait of Sheik Abdul Omar Rahman, the blind Muslim cleric convicted of inspiring the World Trade Center bombing. They also found what was described as a terrorist manifesto expressing hatred for the United States and Israel that was allegedly written by Abu Maizar. Hospitalized for their wounds - Maizar was shot twice and Khalil at least five times - both men were charged with conspiring to use explosives to destroy property. ""I think we were close to a disaster,'' said James Kallstrom, head of the FBI's New York field office. ""It didn't happen, and that's the good news.''

The bad news, once again, was America's vulnerability to terrorism - which raises troubling questions about the federal government's inability to spot would-be terrorists at the border. In hindsight, anyway, Abu Maizar seemed an obvious security risk: he was briefly detained by Israeli authorities during the intifada, when he was about 15, and one of his brothers was once deported from Israel for supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But his family now says it supports peace and that Maizar, who has denied that he is a member of Hamas, has ever been a political or religious militant. A spokesman for the INS says the case - including Maizar's release pending voluntary departure - was handled by the book. Like most Palestinians who come to this country, he was not on any U.S. ""watch list'' as a suspected terrorist. ""This guy is kind of crazy,'' one law-enforcement official said. ""He was just a wanna-be.'' But that doesn't solve the problem - because even wanna-bes can kill.