WASHINGTON — An Ohio truck driver implicated in a terrorist plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge said in a court filing that he intended to withdraw his guilty plea, amid questions about his mental capacity, documents filed in federal court show.
Iyman Faris pleaded guilty in May to helping Al Qaeda explore a second wave of terror attacks on New York and Washington after Sept. 11.
His arrest and plea agreement were announced by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and hailed as a milestone in the Justice Department's antiterror campaign.
Now, the case against the Pakistani native, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999, only to be recruited by a top Al Qaeda leader in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, is threatening to unravel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Terrorism conviction -- An article in Friday's Section A, as well as four previous articles, about an Ohio truck driver's terrorism conviction said Iyman Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to collaborating with Al Qaeda in a plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. The plot involved severing the bridge's suspension cables.
In court papers filed since the plea deal was struck in May, his lawyer, J. Frederick Sinclair of Alexandria, Va., has expressed doubts about the ability of Faris to assist in his defense.
And in the latest twist, Sinclair notified the court in papers filed late Wednesday that Faris told him he now wished to withdraw his plea, and that his client claimed "the facts reported in the plea and the pre-sentence report are not true."
An imam at the mosque Faris attended in Columbus, Mouhamed Nabih Tarazi, said in an interview that he had been concerned about Faris' mental health for several years, and that he once visited Faris in a psychiatric hospital in Columbus in 1997 or 1998 after a suicide attempt.
Tarazi said Faris' request to withdraw his plea was consistent with the problems he had observed. "The man had shown signs of being possessed," the imam said.
"Definitely, he has some mental problems."
Faris was to be sentenced Aug. 1, but the sentencing was postponed after Sinclair requested a psychiatric evaluation of his client, revealing in court papers that Faris had been put on a suicide watch and was taking an antidepressant to help him function within "normal limits."
The judge handling Faris' case, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, based in Alexandria, granted Sinclair's request for a psychiatric evaluation and tentatively rescheduled sentencing for today.
Faris, who pleaded guilty to two counts of assisting a terrorist organization, faced up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Sinclair could not be reached for comment on the latest filing. In the court papers, he said that he had yet to receive a final mental health evaluation of his client and that "the mental state of Mr. Faris at the time he entered the plea of guilty has not yet been determined."
The lawyer added that "there is a chance a conflict may arise between counsel and defendant with respect to the reasons he wishes to withdraw," the papers said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Casey Stavropoulos, declined comment.
Frank Shults, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, which prosecuted the case, also declined comment.
It was not clear when Faris would file papers to formally withdraw his plea.
As originally alleged by the government, Faris was part of a potentially catastrophic plot that included plans to sever the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge with acetylene torches.
Court papers alleged that Faris met Osama bin Laden at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and was subsequently introduced to Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who recruited Faris for a possible sequel to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mohammed was arrested in March and has been cooperating with U.S. authorities.
As part of his plea deal, Faris admitted casing the New York bridge and doing Internet research into cable cutters and other tools that could cause massive destruction, such as train-derailment equipment.
Ultimately, he concluded that the bridge plan was not feasible because security was too tight, and the plot was shelved, court papers showed.
Faris' case was unusual from the start. He was arrested in Columbus but consented to being charged in Virginia, the hub of much of the government's antiterror prosecutions.
His plea agreement was kept under wraps for weeks at the request of prosecutors, who said they were sorting out other leads in the case and did not want to signal the fact to the public.
"On any given day, Iyman Faris appeared to be a hard-working independent truck driver," Ashcroft said when he announced the arrest in June.
"But Faris led a secret double life."
Ashcroft described the case as another success story in the department's war on terrorism.
"We have taken another American-based Al Qaeda operative off the streets," the attorney general said.