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.