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Trucker Gets 20 Years in Terror Plot

Judge refuses man's bid to renege on his guilty plea involving post-9/11 attacks.

October 29, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An Ohio truck driver who admitted to checking out the Brooklyn Bridge as part of an alleged Al Qaeda plot to launch a second wave of terrorist attacks after Sept. 11 was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison after a federal judge rejected his attempt to withdraw a guilty plea.

The government's case against Iyman Faris threatened to unravel last month when the 34-year-old native of Pakistan announced that he wanted to call off a deal with prosecutors he made last May to plead guilty to federal terrorism charges.

Under that agreement, Faris had admitted to meeting with a top Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan in early 2002 and discussing ways he might aid in a new round of attacks on the U.S., including a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by severing its suspension cables.

As part of the plea, he admitted to conducting Internet searches on the availability of equipment to sever bridge suspension cables, and to traveling to New York to examine the famed span. He ultimately concluded that the plot to bring down the bridge was unlikely to succeed, sending a coded message to his would-be conspirators that "the weather is too hot," according to the plea agreement.

Appearing in U.S. District Court, Faris told a different story Tuesday. In brief remarks to U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, he acknowledged having a friend who worked with Al Qaeda but denied having any direct connection himself. While the government said he had traveled abroad to meet Al Qaeda leaders, Faris said he was merely researching the terrorist group.

"I wanted to fool them so I could write a book," he said. "But I am innocent of this charge."

J. Frederick Sinclair, Faris' court-appointed attorney, said at the hearing that he had developed doubts about whether Faris had checked out the structure of the Brooklyn Bridge or even visited New York. He said Faris' only vehicle was his truck, which was too tall to cross the bridge without hitting cross-beams.

Sinclair said Faris was also disavowing other comments he had made to the FBI, including statements he allegedly made about the coded message and the low chances of the plot succeeding.

At the same time, Sinclair said he was concerned that withdrawing the guilty plea would leave his client worse off. Without the plea deal, he said, the government would probably follow through on previous threats to treat Faris even more onerously, including having him declared an enemy combatant and sent to the government's terrorist detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he would have fewer legal protections.

But prosecutors said Faris was attempting to delay the proceedings improperly in the hope of working out a better deal for himself. "You are dealing with someone who is very manipulative and knows how to play the system," Neil Hammerstrom, an assistant U.S. attorney, told Brinkema. He called Faris "a calculating, devious individual."

Brinkema said she was satisfied that the original plea was entered voluntarily, and that an evaluation of Faris by a court-appointed psychiatrist revealed that he was not suffering from any mental infirmity.

The judge also suggested that she was eager to avoid a replay of the issues surrounding the tangled case of alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, which she is also handling. In that case, the government has refused Brinkema's order to make available to the defense witnesses with terrorist connections, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, regarded as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. The case is on hold while the government appeals the order.

Mohammed is also a key government witness in the case against Faris and would probably be among the people the defense would want to cross-examine at any trial.

"Given the serious nature of some of the witnesses," Brinkema said without identifying Mohammed by name, "it would clearly be a problem" if the Faris case were to go to trial. Under the law, she said, she is permitted to consider the possible delay of prosecuting a case and the impact on judicial resources in determining whether to permit a defendant to abandon a plea agreement.

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