Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials in the Department of Justice were clearly pleased last week as they announced the big news. Iyman Faris, 34, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Kashmir, had pleaded guilty at the beginning of May to providing material support to al-Qaeda. Not only had he scoped out the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a plot to destroy the New York City landmark, but he had also tried to obtain equipment to help derail a train near the nation's capital. The feds had done more than nab a truck driver from Columbus, Ohio, who was leading what Ashcroft called "a secret double life," a man determined to wreak havoc right here in the U.S. They had turned one of Osama bin Laden's loyal foot soldiers into another breed entirely: double agent for the U.S.
FBI agents persuaded Faris to cooperate sometime in March, according to Justice Department officials. They dangled an offer to move his extended family from Pakistan to reduce the risk of al-Qaeda retaliation—and a threat to declare him an enemy combatant, which might mean years of pretrial detention. Soon afterward, law-enforcement officials tell Time, Faris was brought to a safe house in Virginia. With agents directing and monitoring his every communication, Faris sent messages to his bosses via cell phone and e-mail. "He was sitting in the safe house making calls for us," says a senior Administration official. "It was a huge triumph for law enforcement."
Faris' admissions, which could get him up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on Aug. 1, contributed to the recent decision to raise the terrorism alert to orange. They were deemed especially credible, according to law-enforcement officials, because they were supported by previous multiple tips. As far back as last fall, the U.S. was hearing about a serious plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge that involved a Midwesterner. An intelligence report from early 2002 said al-Qaeda wanted to derail a train in the industrial corridor of northeast Washington, hoping to smash the cars into tanks of hazardous chemicals stored near the tracks.
Faris is just one of many individuals within the U.S. whom the government is targeting. Ashcroft recently told members of Congress that the Justice Department has 15 or more plea deals with alleged terrorists who are singing to the feds. The FBI and federal prosecutors are investigating a group of at least a dozen mostly Muslim men in the Washington area who studied under a local Islamic scholar. Investigators are also focusing on some Maryland-based associates of Faris acquaintance Majid Khan, a onetime resident of Baltimore who U.S. officials say was tapped by al-Qaeda to lead an operation to blow up gas stations in the U.S.
Though government officials didn't admit it publicly, they were led to Faris (and for that matter, Khan) by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the high-ranking al-Qaeda operative who is accused of directing operations in the U.S. before he was captured in Pakistan on March 1. After Mohammed's arrest, agents discovered an e-mail sent from the U.S. to one of his associates that said, "The weather is too hot"—a curious statement to make in the dead of winter. The e-mail was one of the factors that helped investigators pull Faris' name out of Mohammed. Under grilling, Faris later acknowledged that he wrote the e-mail and was referring to the impossibility of an al-Qaeda plot to bring down the sturdy, well-guarded Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables. It was in fact only a couple of weeks after Mohammed's arrest that federal agents removed belongings from Faris' apartment in black trash bags and led him out with a jacket over his head, Joshua Jones, one of his neighbors, told Time. "It was weird. For a truck driver, he was always there," said Jones.
Just a few years ago, Faris seemed always to be away from home. In late 2000, his plea agreement states, he traveled to Afghanistan with an old friend who happened to be an al-Qaeda operative. After being introduced to bin Laden at an al-Qaeda training camp, Faris took on small assignments. He used the Web to research ultralight planes as possible escape vehicles, ordered sleeping bags for operatives living in Afghanistan, and delivered a bag of cell phones and cash to Mohammed in early 2002. It was at that encounter in Pakistan that Faris was put in charge of procuring acetylene torches to slice suspension cables, as well as torque tools to bend portions of train track. As it turned out, Faris couldn't get his hands on either. Faris' connection to al-Qaeda was "as big a surprise to me as everybody else," his ex-wife Geneva Bowling, 46, told TIME last week from the front porch of her apartment. A poster of the American flag with the words SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 is pasted on her front door. Bowling met the man she knew as Iyman Mohammed Rauf in 1994, soon after he came to the U.S., and they married the next year. If he was trying to be inconspicuous, Faris didn't do a very good job of it.
Neighbors called the police more than a few times to complain about the Eastern music he would blast, as well as the loud gunshots coming from the shooting gallery he and his stepson had set up in their basement, which was littered with shells. Back then, Faris could never have imagined he would end up being one of the U.S.'s secret weapons in the war on terrorism.
— Reported by Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Jenifer Joseph/Columbus.