ALEXANDRIA, Va. - An Ohio truck driver was sentenced to 20 years in prison yesterday for providing support to al-Qaida and helping the terrorist network plot a second wave of attacks against the United States.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema made the decision after rejecting an effort by the defendant, 34-year-old Iyman Faris, to withdraw a guilty plea he made earlier this year in an agreement with the government.
Writing a book
Faris, a U.S. citizen and independent truck driver in Columbus, Ohio, claimed that his confession and guilty plea were based on lies he told government investigators to ingratiate himself with the FBI because he wanted to write a book.
He also said he was depressed at the time of the interrogations and was harassed by FBI agents and threatened with being moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners in the war on terrorism are being held by the Pentagon.
"I'm innocent of this charge," Faris said at a hearing in federal court here. "I don't have any connection to al-Qaida" except that his best friend works for the terrorist group, he said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the sentence made the nation safer.
"Iyman Faris - a seemingly hard-working truck driver - betrayed his fellow American citizens by scouting potential terrorist targets for al-Qaida," he said in a written statement.
Federal prosecutors said Faris was treated well while being questioned. He received three meals a day, new clothes, unlimited cell-phone and e-mail access, doctor visits and even a visit from his girlfriend, they said.
In addition, they disputed that his mental state was fragile.
"You have a calculating, devious individual and not one suffering from a mental defect," said lead prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom.
An examination ordered by the court, sealed from the public, also said that Faris was competent to stand trial, Brinkema said.
In an agreement with federal prosecutors earlier this year, Faris admitted that he led a secret life assisting al-Qaida.
He said he took direct orders from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top leader now in U.S. custody, in a plot to simultaneously destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and attack Washington, D.C.
He also admitted attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and meeting Osama bin Laden.
Faris' attorney, Frederick Sinclair, said that his client's statements to investigators were inconsistent, proving that they could be fake. He also said that Faris couldn't have scouted the Brooklyn Bridge in his semi-truck because those kinds of vehicles are not allowed on it.
Makes no difference
But Brinkema discounted the discrepancies in the statements, saying that "the essence is not materially different."
In addition, she said the government contends that he scouted the bridge, not that he did so in his truck.
Federal prosecutors, however, said Faris did say in a subsequent interrogation that he drove the truck across the bridge, but he was already trying then to unravel his guilty plea.
In addition, prosecutors said they have evidence and corroborating information about Faris' activities from overseas and domestic sources.
Brinkema sentenced Faris to 20 years on two counts of providing resources and conspiring with a terrorist group, followed by eight years of supervised release.
He could get out in 17 years with good behavior.
U.S. District Attorney Paul McNulty said Faris' efforts to reverse his plea and claim innocence were not entirely unexpected.
"Most criminals, when they are caught, have a number of ideas to get them out of accountability," he said after the hearing.
Sinclair, in turn, said that he wasn't surprised that Brinkema rejected Faris' effort to change the guilty plea.
"It's very hard to withdraw a plea of guilty in the Eastern District of Virginia," he said.
Faris is a native of Kashmir. He came to the United States in May 1994 and became a naturalized citizen in December 1999.
In his plea, Faris admitted providing support to terrorists, including giving them information about planes, purchasing equipment, arranging travel tickets, researching tools for attacks and surveying possible targets.