COLUMBUS, Ohio, Sept. 8, 2003 — -- "The weather is too hot," Iyman Faris wrote in an e-mail last winter to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks. The message meant: Destroying the Brooklyn Bridge would be too difficult.
From Pakistan, Mohammed had sent Faris on a mission to scout the feasibility of bringing down the bridge by slashing its suspension cables.
The e-mail message caught the eye of CIA and FBI agents when they began examining Mohammed's computer after he was captured last March. Mohammed then fingered Faris, who, when confronted by the FBI in April, admitted he was an al Qaeda sleeper — a terrorist lying in wait for instructions.
"We learned a lot from this case about al Qaeda," said Kevin Brock, the FBI special agent in charge of the Faris investigation. "They are not afraid to reach out and task American citizens like Iyman Faris to do their bidding, to take overt steps to further terrorist conspiracy."
The case of Faris, the only confessed al Qaeda sleeper caught on U.S. soil, offers disturbing insight into the way the terrorist organization has attempted to operate in the United States. And Faris may have been far more dangerous than previously known.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced June 19 that Faris, 34, had pleaded guilty to two counts of providing material support to terrorists. 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, Ashcroft said.
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.
A commercial truck driver, Faris had access to airports and was licensed to haul flammable, poisonous chemicals.
Despite the fact he was at times suicidal, Faris was able to keep that license. He once tried to jump off a bridge in downtown Columbus, and was briefly housed in a mental hospital.
In an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS, his ex-wife, Geneva Bowling, said Faris sometimes woke up in the middle of the night screaming and told her he saw demons when he was awake.
"He would tell me about the man that he talked to when he would go out and have the blackouts," Bowling told ABCNEWS. "He was a half-man that looked like him and he would be up in the tree."
But Ohio transportation officials maintain they were never aware Faris suffered from psychological problems. "The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles had no knowledge that this person might be a dangerous individual," said Franklin Caltrider, the registrar of motor vehicles.
Fits the Profile
Faris fits the profile of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and the type of men al Qaeda has sought to infiltrate the United States, sources told ABCNEWS. Like the Sept. 11 hijackers, Faris came to the United States on a student visa, but failed to enroll in school.
In 2000, Faris made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was introduced to Osama bin Laden. At that time, his life was unraveling: His marriage was failing and his father had died.
In Karachi, Pakistan, under the direction of al Qaeda, Faris started researching airplanes at Internet cafés. He also ordered cell phones and 2,000 sleeping bags for terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
In early 2002, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Faris returned to Karachi, where he met al Qaeda's operations chief, Mohammed, who told Faris he was targeting a New York City landmark. Faris signed on.
‘Never Suspected a Thing’
But when he returned to Columbus, Faris didn't even hint at his newfound radical connections.
"He never once was pro-Osama bin Laden or anything to do with him or al Qaeda or anything," said Bowling.
Even today, his spiritual adviser has no answers. "When he was here in public, we never saw any of this," Mouhamed Nabih Tarazi, the imam of the Columbus Islamic Center, told ABCNEWS.
His neighbors in Columbus 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."
More Sleeper Cells?
Faris is one of more than 1,000 suspected al Qaeda sympathizers under FBI investigation across the nation. Hundreds of suspects are being tailed or are under electronic surveillance. Many came under focus because their names turned up in records recovered in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
"I can't think of a division of the FBI that doesn't have an aggressive joint terrorism task force looking at a number of people of interest," said Brock.
Faris is being held in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia, where he awaits sentencing. He could face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.
As part of his plea agreement, Faris agreed to cooperate with authorities — and so far he is. Sources told ABCNEWS that Faris is naming other associates, which is another step in the attempt to uncover terrorist sleeper cells in the United States.
"These individuals now have moved throughout the country. It's not just limited to major cities like Chicago, like New York, Los Angeles," said FBI Assistant Director Pat D'Amuro, chief of the New York field office and until recently head of all FBI counterterrorism programs. "They're in rural America."
But there is no guarantee U.S. officials will be able to nab them the way they nabbed Iyman Faris.