ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A truck driver worked directly with Al Qaeda (search) terrorists in a plot to derail trains in the United States and sabotage a bridge in New York City, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.
Iyman Faris, 34, of Columbus, Ohio, masqueraded as a truck driver criss-crossing the United States, but all the while he was plotting terrorist attacks on his fellow Americans, Ashcroft said as he announced the man's guilty plea to two felony charges.
He said Faris, a native of Kashmir who became an American citizen in 1999, traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last two years and even met with Usama bin Laden at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
He received instructions directly from senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), who is in U.S. custody overseas and has provided U.S. interrogators with valuable intelligence about the terror group's worldwide reach.
Under an agreement with the Justice Department unsealed Thursday, Faris pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to provide support. He also agreed to cooperate with government investigators.
The agreement was filed with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington on May 1, but was kept secret for over a month.
A government statement of fact filed along with the guilty plea said that Faris, also known as Mohammed Rauf, was instructed by a senior Al Qaeda operative to obtain "gas cutters" equipment that would enable him to sever the cables on "a bridge in New York City," believed to have been the Brooklyn Bridge (search).
Faris, who is represented by a lawyer and said in the documents he was not coerced to plead, could face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines. Sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
"This case highlights the very real threats that still exist here at home in the United States of America in the war against terrorism," Ashcroft told a Justice Department news conference.
"This case has many of the hallmarks we have come to recognize in Al Qaeda operations," he said.
Ashcroft said in a written statement, "We have taken another American-based Al Qaeda operative off the streets, who appeared to be a hard-working American trucker, but secretly scouted terrorist strikes that could have killed many of his fellow citizens."
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 that 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."
None of the planned attacks occurred.
The meetings occurred in 2000, 2001 and early 2002 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government statement says. They included meetings with two unidentified senior Al Qaeda leaders, one believed to be Mohammed and the other labeled as Usama bin Laden's "right foot." Faris also met bin Laden himself in 2000.
The statement says that Faris researched the bridge on the Internet and traveled to New York in late 2002 to examine the bridge, 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.
Faris was also asked by bin Laden associates in late 2000 to look into ultralight aircraft that could be used as escape planes by Al Qaeda operatives, prosecutors say. In addition, Faris helped Al Qaeda obtain 2,000 lightweight sleeping bags that were shipped to Afghanistan for use by bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members.
Faris came to the United States in May 1994, became a U.S. citizen in December 1999 and worked as an independent trucker for several years. His original contact with Al Qaeda came through one of the senior operatives, whom the government says Faris had known since the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.
Records show he was married to Geneva Bowling from 1995 to 2000 and lived with her in a small home in Columbus. "That someone even associated with this craziness is right here in Columbus, it's sad," said Negla Ross, who lives next door.
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 Al Qaeda cells, including six of seven members of a cell in Lackawanna, N.Y.
Two 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.