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Archive for Friday, June 20, 2003

Ohio truck driver pleads guilty to terror charges

June 20, 2003

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— An Ohio truck driver who met Osama bin Laden and admitted plots against trains and the Brooklyn Bridge has pleaded guilty to felony charges and is cooperating in the investigation of al-Qaida, federal authorities said Thursday.

Iyman Faris, 34, of Columbus, Ohio, acknowledged in court documents that he met bin Laden in 2000 at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and provided operatives there with sleeping bags, cell phones and other assistance.

Later, Faris received attack instructions from top terror leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, authorities said, for what they suggested might have been a second wave planned for New York and Washington to follow the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This case highlights the very real threats that still exist here at home in the United States of America in the war against terrorism," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said at a Justice Department news conference. "While we are disabling al-Qaida, we don't believe it is disabled."

Under an agreement reached May 1 and unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington, Faris pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to provide support.

Faris, who is represented by a lawyer, could face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines. Sentencing was set for Aug. 1.

He is a native of Kashmir who originally came to the United States in May 1994 and become a naturalized U.S. citizen in December 1999. He has been working as an independent trucker based in Columbus for several years.

A government statement, signed by Faris, says that he was instructed by a senior al-Qaida operative to obtain "gas cutters," probably acetylene torches, that would enable him to sever the cables on "a bridge in New York City" that officials said was the Brooklyn Bridge.

Although the senior operative is referred to only as "C-2" in the documents, a U.S. law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity identified him as Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan on March 1 and is said to be providing interrogators with a wealth of information about al-Qaida's global reach.

Faris was told to refer to the cutters as "gas stations" so that eavesdroppers would not get wind of the plot.

In addition, Mohammed told Faris that he should obtain heavy torque tools -- code-named "mechanics shops" -- that could be used to derail trains in the United States, the affidavit says. No details about location or time of an attack is mentioned in the court papers, but they name only New York and Washington.

None of the allegedly planned attacks occurred.

The meetings took place in 2000, 2001 and early 2002 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government statement says. Faris' original contact with al-Qaida came through a second senior operative, named only as "C-1" or "bin Laden's right foot," whom the government says Faris had known since the Soviet-Afghanistan war in the 1980s.

The statement says that Faris researched the Brooklyn Bridge on the Internet and traveled to New York in late 2002 to examine it, finally concluding that "the plot to destroy the bridge by severing the cables was very unlikely to succeed."

He sent a coded message via the Internet in early 2003 to al-Qaida leaders: "The weather is too hot."

Earlier, Faris was asked by bin Laden associates in late 2000 to look into ultralight aircraft that could be used as escape planes by al-Qaida operatives, prosecutors say. Faris had mentioned his access to airports as a trucker, sparking interest in cargo planes because of their weight and high fuel capacity.

In addition, Faris helped al-Qaida obtain 2,000 lightweight sleeping bags that were shipped to Afghanistan for use by bin Laden and other al-Qaida members.

Using a disguise, he helped up to six al-Qaida members obtain airline ticket extensions so they could travel to Yemen and also delivered cell phones and cash to Mohammed, court documents say.

Ashcroft and senior FBI officials would not detail the circumstances of Faris' arrest. They also would not say whether Faris was part of an active al-Qaida cell in the United States, or whether any of his activities had previously been monitored.

"Where possible we will take the terror organization apart in large pieces and in this case one piece at a time," said Pasquale "Pat" D'Amuro, chief of the FBI's counterterrorism division.

Ashcroft gave credit to the USA Patriot Act, a law passed by Congress in 2001 that strengthened the government's surveillance powers and allowed far greater sharing of intelligence with criminal investigators and prosecutors.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Justice Department has obtained a number of guilty pleas from or won court convictions of members of alleged al-Qaida cells, including six of seven members of an alleged cell in Lackawanna, N.Y.

Two alleged members of a radical Islamic movement allied with al-Qaida were convicted earlier this month in Detroit of providing material support and resources to the terrorist group by running an illegal document ring. One other man was acquitted in that case.

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