- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

An al Qaeda sleeper agent “wrapped in his cloak of American citizenship” has secretly pleaded guilty to aiding Osama bin Laden by scouting out bridges and railroads for destruction in New York and Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday.

“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,” the attorney general said.

He refused to confirm that the charges involved a plot to destroy the 120-year-old Brooklyn Bridge but pointedly added that he was not denying it, either.

Mr. Ashcroft said Iyman Faris, 34, alias Mohammad Rauf, pleaded guilty May 1 to living “a secret double life” in which he worked on figuring out how to plunge a particular New York bridge into the river by cutting its suspension cables with “gas cutters” and obtaining “torque tools” to derail trains in the Washington area.

Faris, a Kashmir native who emigrated to Columbus, Ohio, and drove fuel trucks with access to U.S. airports, faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine when he is sentenced Aug. 1.

“I think it’s pretty clear from the plea agreement itself that he certainly was not a lone terrorist. A person who goes to see Osama bin Laden, who takes direction from other high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, who reports to high-ranking al Qaeda operatives his activities, is not a solo operative in the sense of being a lone terrorist,” the attorney general said.

“While we think we are disabling al Qaeda, we do not believe that al Qaeda is disabled,” Mr. Ashcroft said in announcing the guilty plea while refusing to say when or where Faris was arrested, or whether other conspirators were seized.

The two-count plea-bargain unsealed yesterday showed that Faris admitted giving material support to al Qaeda and to joining a conspiracy to commit new acts of terror. The plea document describes numerous, more serious offenses with which he was not charged, which may indicate he has become a cooperating witness.

When asked whether Faris or his family had entered the Witness Protection Program, Mr. Ashcroft said, “Not to my knowledge.”

Papers in the case were unsealed yesterday in Alexandria federal court by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who also presides over the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person yet charged with direct participation in the September 11 attacks.

The plea document said Faris canceled plans for the bridge attack because security was too tight and its suspension cables did not seem vulnerable. Early this year, he dispatched a coded message that said, “The weather is too hot.”

Faris emigrated to the United States in May 1994 and became a naturalized citizen in December 1999, soon after he became eligible, the attorney general said.

In addition to acting as a foot soldier who scouted targets, Faris admitted he bought 2,000 sleeping bags for al Qaeda terrorists and researched use of ultralight airplanes for the group.

He also said he disguised himself to visit a travel agent and obtain extensions on airline tickets for six al Qaeda agents’ flights to Yemen, and delivered money and cell phones for the terrorist group.

Mr. Ashcroft would not disclose how far the U.S. plots went beyond theoretical stages.

“Let us just say that we believe that the plea reflects that he was involved in a meaningful way in a terrorist plot, and that the kind of activity that he is reflected as having is essential to the potential success of such a plot. So we consider him to have been a meaningful participant in a real situation,” he said.

The Justice Department would not disclose any aspect of the investigation including how or when FBI agents learned of his plot.

However, a June 23 Newsweek article reported the substance of the charges announced yesterday and said the information was provided by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of being the mastermind in the September 11 attack and once a “most wanted” terrorist in the Manila-based plot to bomb as many as 12 airliners over the Pacific.

Newsweek said Faris paid a $200 speeding fine in May but had not been seen in weeks at his tiny, white frame house in Columbus. It is likely, however, that Faris was in custody before May 1.

Mr. Ashcroft conceded that recent speculation, including some of his own, about a plot to simultaneously blow up U.S. gas stations grew from Faris’ use of “gas stations” as a code word for the acetylene torch to be used for cutting the bridge cables but had not confirmed it.

“That’s an assumption. If you write that, you write that at your own peril, not me. But you know, that’s the only gas cutter I know of,” Mr. Ashcroft said yesterday.

When asked about secrecy in this case and 15 others that remain sealed, Mr. Ashcroft said the Faris developments were kept secret to avoid “impairing very important interests.”

He gave no hint what interests were involved nor would he discuss whether any other recent arrests were related to the Faris case.

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