An Ohio trucker has admitted scouting sites in the United States for a Sept. 11-style attack, the Justice Department said Thursday.
Columbus, Ohio resident Iyman Faris, 33, pleaded guilty on May 1 to conspiracy to provide material support to the al Qaeda organization, and providing material support. The plea was kept secret until Thursday.
According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Faris has admitted to meeting with Osama bin Laden, providing information on ultralite aircraft to al Qaeda and helping the terror group obtain airplane tickets and cell phones.
He also was told by an al Qaeda operative to obtain tools for severing the cables supporting a New York City bridge — an act that was apparently intended as part of another strike on New York and Washington, D.C., similar to the earlier attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"On any given day, Iyman Faris appeared to be a hard-working, independent truck driver. He freely crisscrossed the country making deliveries to airports and businesses without raising suspicion," Ashcroft said at an afternoon press conference. "But Iyman Faris led a double life."
"From late 2000 to March of this year, Faris worked in concert with al Qaeda, our enemies, to plot potential attacks against America and its citizens," he said.
Describing Faris, a native of Kashmir who became a citizen in 1999, as a criminal who was "wrapped in the cloak of his citizenship and protected by the liberties of our free country," Ashcroft said Faris had admitted to:
At a meeting after the Sept. 11 attacks, an al Qaeda operative asked Faris about his job as a truck driver, Ashcroft said. Faris told him he made deliveries to airports, including some directly to cargo planes.
The al Qaeda operative said he was interested in cargo planes because they held "more weight and more fuel," according to Ashcroft.
"He was told of plans for another simultaneous operation in New York City and Washington D.C.," Ashcroft said.
None of the planned attacks occurred.
A statement of fact filed along with the guilty plea says that Faris, also known as Mohammed Rauf, was instructed by an senior al Qaeda operative — identified as "C-2" in the documents and as bin Laden's "right foot" — to obtain equipment that would enable him to sever the cables on "a bridge in New York City" believed to have been the Brooklyn Bridge.
Faris was told to refer to the cutters as "gas stations" so that eavesdroppers would not get wind of the plot.
In addition, the senior al Qaeda operative told Faris he should obtain tools that could be used to derail trains in the United States, the affidavit says. These tools were to be referred to in code as "mechanics shops."
The statement said that Faris researched the bridge on the Internet and traveled to New York in late 2002 to examine it, concluding that "the plot to destroy the bridge by severing the cables was very unlikely to succeed" because of its security and structure.
He sent a coded message back to al Qaeda leaders: "The weather is too hot," meaning that the plot probably couldn't go forward, the statement said.
Ashcroft painted the plea as part of law enforcement's continued success against terrorism and an example of why the federal government needs the anti-terrorism powers it has enjoyed since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"With this two-count plea the Department of Justice continues to root out terrorism and those who support terrorism," he said, adding that it "highlights the importance of tools such as those found in the USA Patriot Act."
That act, which vastly expanded federal powers to track and watch people, has come under fire by some critics for giving too much latitude to authorities. Ashcroft seeks to expand it.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Justice Department has obtained a number of guilty pleas from or won court convictions of members of alleged al Qaeda cells, including six of seven members of an alleged cell in Lackawanna, New York.
Two alleged al Qaeda members in Detroit were convicted earlier this month of providing material support and resources to the terrorist group by running an illegal document ring. One other man was acquitted in that case.
Faris is believed to have received instructions directly from senior al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who also is in U.S. custody overseas and has provided U.S. interrogators with valuable intelligence about the terror group.
Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was arrested in early March. It was one of the biggest catches to date in the war on terrorism. At the time of the arrest that Mohammed was also suspected of orchestrating new threats against the United States that were a factor in raising the terrorist threat level in February.