WASHINGTON - Federal law enforcement officials said yesterday that they had uncovered a plot by al-Qaida operatives, using an Ohio truck driver as a scout, to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and other targets as recently as March.
The truck driver, a 34-year-old naturalized American citizen from Kashmir named Iyman Faris, was secretly apprehended about three months ago and agreed to plead guilty in May in closed proceedings before a federal judge in Virginia to charges that he had provided material support to terrorists. He faces 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Faris traveled in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in 2000, meeting with Osama bin Laden and working with one of his top lieutenants, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to help organize and finance holy war causes. After returning to the United States in late 2002, officials said, he began casing the Brooklyn Bridge and discussing via coded messages with al-Qaida leaders ways of using blowtorches to sever the suspension cables.
The plotting continued through March, as Faris sent coded messages to al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. One such message said that "the weather is too hot." Officials said that meant that Faris feared that the plot was unlikely to succeed - apparently because of security and the bridge's structure - and should be postponed. He was arrested soon after, though officials would not discuss the circumstances.
In a news conference here, Attorney General John Ashcroft said authorities took Faris' plot very seriously and that the case "highlights the very real threats that still exist here at home in the United States of America in the war against terrorism."
New York City police, who were told of the plot in March, said they considered the threat so serious that they increased land and marine patrols around the Brooklyn Bridge several months ago.
"He is the principal reason we have the kind of security you see on the Brooklyn Bridge," a law enforcement official said, referring to Faris.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said: "We spend a great deal of effort and money in keeping this city secure. In this case, it appears that money was well spent. It may have saved the Brooklyn Bridge."
An FBI official said investigators were still seeking to determine just how far the plot proceeded and how serious a threat Faris posed.
"Obviously, he had contacts with people at al-Qaida, so he has to be considered somewhat important, but to say whether he really could have accomplished this or not, we're still not sure," the official said.
Justice Department officials announced the case as Ashcroft has been put on the defensive by charges from his inspector general that the department mistreated many illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks in its pursuit of suspected terrorists.
The Faris case allowed Ashcroft to claim another victory in the campaign against terrorism, and he said the timing in making the case public was driven solely by law enforcement concerns.
"I firmly believe that for us to have announced this case a day sooner would have carried with it the potential of impairing very important interests," he said.
Faris was arrested soon after sending the message overseas about the bridge being "too hot" to attack, but authorities refused to say how or where he was apprehended or what led them to him. Court documents indicated that the FBI may have used electronic surveillance or intelligence sources to track his activities, but Ashcroft and other officials refused to discuss the surveillance, saying it could compromise national security.
J. Frederick Sinclair, a private defense attorney who represented Faris, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The allegations against Faris bear similarities to the case against Jose Padilla, a Chicago man who last year was accused of plotting with al-Qaida to plant a "dirty bomb" and who has been imprisoned in a military brig as an enemy combatant.
Prosecutors discussed the idea of declaring Faris an enemy combatant as well, and that may have influenced his decision to admit guilt to avoid the prospect of indefinite detention, according to a lawyer who requested anonymity.
Faris has indicated that he might be willing to cooperate with authorities, a law enforcement official said.
Faris, also known as Mohammad Rauf, came to the United States in 1994, officials said. He lived on a tree-lined street in a racially mixed neighborhood in Columbus in the late 1990s, until he and his wife apparently split up in early 2000, neighbors said yesterday.
Negla Ross, a former next-door neighbor said: "He was very standoffish, not approachable."
Ross said she called the police about him a few times because of loud music and other noise. Once, after neighbors heard shots fired from his home, the police found that his wife's son had set up a shooting range in the basement, she said.
Ashcroft said the truck driver's suburban life was a cover.