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Truck driver pleads guilty alqaeda plot { June 20 2003 }

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Trucker Pleads Guilty in Plot By Al Qaeda
Brooklyn Bridge, D.C. Cited as Targets

By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2003; Page A01

An Ohio truck driver who met with Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders plotted to bring down New York's Brooklyn Bridge and launch a simultaneous unspecified attack in Washington as recently as a few months ago, according to officials and court papers unsealed yesterday.

Iyman Faris, a Kashmiri-born naturalized American citizen who is in federal custody, pleaded guilty May 1 to providing material support to a terrorist organization in a case filed under seal in federal court in Alexandria. None of the attacks he planned with top al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed was carried out.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who announced the plea agreement yesterday, said that while Faris appeared to be a hardworking truck driver, he "had a secret double life" that included carrying cash for al Qaeda, providing bin Laden with information about "ultralight" aircraft and scouting equipment for sabotaging railroad tracks and cutting suspension bridge cables.

Law enforcement officials said they immediately took steps to safeguard certain facilities when they learned of the plots, and suggested that information about Faris's efforts may have been a factor in the decision to raise the national terrorist threat level this spring.

Mohammed, al Qaeda's operations chief until his capture March 1 in Pakistan, disclosed information about Faris to interrogators, according to law enforcement sources. Mohammed is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location abroad. Ashcroft said the investigation of the plots is continuing and declined comment on whether other suspected terrorist cell members may be in custody or under surveillance.

FBI counterterrorism chief Pasquale J. D'Amuro, who appeared with Ashcroft, said the plea agreement "serves to remind us there are still terrorists in our midst."

In the 21 months since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, federal prosecutors have obtained guilty pleas or convictions using the material-support statute against six Yemeni American men from Lackawanna, N.Y., who admitted attending al Qaeda training camps; two Detroit men who planned to aid an unspecified terror plot, and a Portland, Ore., man who acknowledged helping the Taliban, among others.

Faris, 34, of Columbus, Ohio, who also goes by the name Mohammad Rauf, faces up to 20 years in prison. As a condition of his plea, he has agreed to cooperate with federal officials investigating al Qaeda.

Ashcroft declined to give the date or circumstances of Faris's arrest, but court documents indicate that Faris agreed his case could be handled in the Eastern District of Virginia, which has overseen other terrorism cases. His attorney, J. Frederick Sinclair, of Alexandria, was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

In late 2000 and at various times over the next two years, Faris traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where on one occasion he met with bin Laden and his senior lieutenants, according to a statement of facts filed with the plea agreement. The papers indicate that Faris had at least one confederate in the United States who sent coded messages for him to a senior al Qaeda operative in Pakistan between April 2002 and March 2003.

The court papers show that on his trip to Pakistan in late 2000, Faris met with an unnamed friend he had known since the Soviet-Afghanistan war in the mid-1980s. The two traveled to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where Faris's friend, described as bin Laden's "right foot" for his role in providing al Qaeda with supplies and materials, introduced him to bin Laden.

Faris was asked to research ultralight planes as a means of escape for terrorist operatives, a task he accomplished at an Internet cafe in Karachi, according to the court papers. He then passed the information back to his friend.

On another occasion at about the same time, the two men went to a factory and ordered 2,000 lightweight sleeping bags that were shipped to al Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to the papers.

A year later, in December 2001, Faris helped al Qaeda obtain extensions for about a half-dozen airline tickets for al Qaeda members planning to travel to Yemen. Early in 2002, Faris was introduced to the third-ranking al Qaeda leader -- identified by law enforcement sources as Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- and later delivered a bag containing cash and cellphones to him, the court papers show.

Faris told Mohammed of his work as a truck driver, including his deliveries to cargo planes. Mohammed "advised him that he was interested in cargo planes because they would hold 'more weight and more fuel,' " the court papers said.

Mohammed informed Faris that al Qaeda was "planning two simultaneous operations in New York City and Washington D.C." He asked Faris to obtain "gas cutters" -- believed to be cutting torches -- to sever the bridge cables, and tools to damage railroad tracks. He was told to refer to the torches in his communications as "gas stations" and the tools as "mechanics shops."

Faris researched gas torches on the Internet and asked a friend about them, the court papers show. He had little success and sent coded messages to that effect to Mohammed. After scouting the Brooklyn Bridge early this year and concluding the plot would fail because of the bridge's security and structure, he sent another coded message to his unnamed friend that "the weather is too hot."

Faris admitted to the facts contained in the court papers and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and one count of providing material support for terrorism.

Ayman B. Saed, a Palestinian friend of Faris's who moved from Ohio to Florida in 2001, formed a company with Faris called Aymanes Imports in 1997. Yesterday, Saed said the pair intended to import clothing from Pakistan but the company never got off the ground. He expressed surprise that Faris had pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.

"I never knew he was into politics in any way," said Saed, who added that he has not seen Faris in several years.

Research editor Margot Williams and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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