The Ohio truck driver who admitted working with al Qaeda is revealing key information to authorities, but the prosecutor in the case warned today that the arrest shows the threat of terrorist attacks on American soil still exists.
"It is a very chilling and disturbing reminder to us that such individuals do exist," Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney who led the prosecution against Iyman Faris, told Good Morning America.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Thursday that Faris, a U.S. citizen, had pleaded guilty to two counts of providing material support to terrorists. The charges stemmed from a variety of plots against U.S. targets, including the Brooklyn Bridge.
Faris admitted living a "secret double life," Ashcroft said. Although he appeared to be a normal, hardworking truck driver to his associates and neighbors, he was also an al Qaeda operative who met with Osama bin Laden and helped plot new attacks in the United States.
"To put it simple, he was helping al Qaeda in its attack, in its mission against the United States. Specifically, he was scouting a target," said McNulty.
As part of the plea agreement, Faris, 34, agreed to cooperate with authorities — and so far he is. Sources told ABCNEWS that Faris is naming other associates. He is expected to be sentenced on August 1, and could face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.
As an independent truck driver, Faris had access to airports, and sources said he was licensed to haul hazardous materials. Authorities are trying to determine how extensive his support network in the United States network may have been.
"So now we want to find out: What did he touch? Who did he meet? Where did he go?" said former FBI Agent Jack Cloonan, an ABCNEWS consultant.
‘Never Suspected a Thing’
Faris, who was born in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, originally came to the United States in May 1994 and became a U.S. citizen in December 1999. His neighbors in Columbus, Ohio, were shocked to learn he was a terrorist operative.
"[I] never suspected a thing," said Larry Conners, who lived two doors down from Faris. "He looked all right to me, but being a truck driver, it … in the neighborhood, you wouldn't have any idea."
Negra Ross said neighbors sometimes complained about the noise that came from Faris' home. She said he didn't mix much with people in the area. "He was fairly standoffish and wasn't necessarily friendly."
Still, she said, his admitted involvement in terrorism was shocking.
"Even though this is a state capital, you never think that things like this could happen in Ohio — Columbus, Ohio, of all places."
Direct Orders From Al Qaeda’s High Ranks
Faris' case is being dealt with by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington where other terrorism cases, including the charges against "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh and alleged 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, were taken.
In recent years, officials said, Faris had visited an al Qaeda terror training camp in Afghanistan, met personally with bin Laden, and assisted the terrorist network with several plans and plots.
Faris' original contact with al Qaeda came through one of its senior operatives. The government says Faris had known the operative since the Soviet-Afghanistan war in the 1980s.
Faris was working closely with the terror network's No. 3 commander, officials say.
That al Qaeda commander is believed to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top al Qaeda officer who was captured in Pakistan earlier this year. Sources told ABCNEWS that Mohammed directed Faris to help plan a series of potentially devastating attacks in New York and Washington.
Mohammed gave U.S. officials useful information against Faris, and Mohammed is now providing officials with specific information about al Qaeda operations in the United States, sources said.
The indictment also claims Faris was involved in moving money into the United States to fund terrorist activities.
Brooklyn Bridge Targeted
Faris was instructed to get equipment including "gas cutters" to be used to cut suspension wires on the Brooklyn Bridge, a famed New York landmark. According to the indictment, he approached an acquaintance about getting the tools, did Internet research on them and was also supposed to get tools to damage train tracks and cause a derailment.
Faris was instructed to refer to the gas cutters in code as "gas stations" and to the tools intended for the train tracks as "mechanic's shops."
Authorities also believe Faris was interested in striking the train system in the Washington vicinity, and may have included D.C.'s Metro system.
In late 2002, Faris traveled to New York to examine possible targets, but concluded the bridge plan was unworkable, Ashcroft said. He sent a coded message that "the weather is too hot," meaning increased security and the bridge's design were problematic.
Faris was also told to spend hours studying ultralight aircraft for use in a possible attack. In 2000, he helped obtain 2,000 sleeping bags for use by al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, officials say. He also allegedly helped al Qaeda members obtain cell phones and change plane tickets.
Faris also discussed driving an explosives-laden truck onto an airport tarmac to blow up aircraft on the ground. He reportedly had several previous run-ins with the law, including a citation after he flipped his vehicle on a highway ramp and a drunken driving arrest.
Targeting ‘Sleeper Cells’
The Ohio resident pleaded guilty to the terror charges on May 1, but the indictment was sealed while law enforcement agents pursued related leads, Ashcroft said. He is being held in the Alexandria Detention Center.
The guilty plea represents another step in the attempt to uncover terrorist sleeper cells in the United States. In May, six men living in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Lackawanna pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism.
The men admitted attending an al Qaeda terror training camp in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001.
The so-called Lackawanna Six — all of Yemeni descent — face sentences of between seven and 10 years in prison.
As evidence of ongoing success in the fight against terrorists operating in the United States, Ashcroft also cited the convictions of two alleged al Qaeda members in Detroit, and of a Seattle man accused of helping the Taliban.
ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas in Washington, George Zonders in Columbus, Ohio, and Jason Ryan in New York contributed to this report.