Terror Plots, Not Actions, Go on Trial

Times Staff Writer

The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering when armed federal agents knocked at a second-floor apartment in the middle of the night. They were looking for Nabil al-Marabh, a Syrian long suspected of fomenting terrorism.

He was not there. Instead, the FBI found three other men, along with a trove of suspicious material about Los Angeles International Airport, Disneyland and other potential terrorist targets.

Now, 18 months later, the raid in southwest Detroit has developed into the first showcase trial in which the U.S. government will seek to prove that terrorists have indeed been afoot in America.

The trial is set to begin Tuesday in a federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. It is the first of four terrorism cases -- similar trials are upcoming in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Buffalo, N.Y. -- in which the defendants are charged with plotting terrorist acts, rather than committing them.

All four center on disaffected young Americans or recent immigrants drawn to the angry rhetoric of radical Islam, typical characteristics of Al Qaeda recruits. The government has presented evidence that all engaged in activity which, with the hindsight of Sept. 11, 2001, seems alarming.

Federal agents were trailing some of the suspects even before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors trumpeted the arrests in all four cities. This month, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the arrests showed that "our strategy and tactics are working. We are winning the war on terrorism."

Critics contend the government has indiscriminately arrested Arab Americans and Muslims without regard for the protections of the U.S. Constitution, or without distinguishing between serious terrorists and people who pose little threat.

These four cases should help to answer the question of who is right.

Detroit

Karim Koubriti answered the door in his boxers and T-shirt on Sept. 17, 2001. Half asleep, he invited the agents inside.

Ahmed Hannan and Farouk Ali-Haimoud were roused from blankets and a sleeping bag. There were no beds and little furniture in the $400-a-month flat. The television set was broken; clothes were piled in large trash bags on the floor.

The men said they were new in town and worked at restaurants. The agents opened a desk drawer and spotted some identification badges for employees of Sky Chef restaurant at Detroit Metro Airport.

"They were surprised that we found the badges," said FBI agent Mary Ann Manescu.

All three were arrested and handcuffed. Agents recovered phony identification cards, passports and photos, video- and audiotapes, and a day-planner notebook.

The notebook contained Arabic notations referring to the "American base in Turkey," the "American foreign minister" and an airport in Jordan.

There also were sketches of what appeared to be an airport, complete with aircraft and runways.

Of the more than 100 tapes, some appeared to be surveillance panoramas of Disneyland and the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.

"Allah, take away the Jews and the Christians ..." says the voice on one of the tapes. "Allah, kill them all. Don't keep any of them alive."

The suspects contend they are being falsely implicated because of material left behind in the apartment by someone else.

All three were indicted in August, along with alleged collaborators Abdella Lnu and Youssef Hmimssa, on suspicion of conspiring to "damage or destroy" property in this country and abroad.

Hmimssa came to the attention of the FBI after his photograph was found in the apartment, and he was arrested in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has since been dropped from the case and appears to be cooperating with the government.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Convertino characterized the defendants as scouts for Al Qaeda, helping operatives identify weaknesses in potential targets.

"The evidence is infinitely stronger than it was at the time" of the apartment raid, he said. "It appears as though these individuals did have terrorist ties."

Prosecutors said that beginning in February 1998, before immigrating to this country, they agreed to call themselves ikhwan, or "brothers," and began preparing for violent attacks around the world.

Convertino said the three lived together in Detroit and nearby Dearborn and had "received direction" from Lnu, who lived in Chicago and had expertise in airport security operations, false IDs and the fraudulent use of phone-calling cards.

Prosecutors said that in June 2001, Ali-Haimoud prepared to send money and weapons to associates in Algeria. They said that same month, Hannan described to a government witness, apparently Hmimssa, the physical layout of the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan.

Koubriti had wanted to transport hazardous materials, prosecutors said. He also allegedly spoke in code over a public telephone about a scheme to import illegal material hidden in shoes.

Bly, Ore.

The gravel road three miles east of town is chained off now, with two "No Trespassing" signs posted out front. Here, according to federal prosecutors, is where Earnest James Ujaama planned to build a terrorism training camp.

To many of the 500 people who live around Bly in southern Oregon, that claim seems preposterous.

"If all this crap was going to happen like the government says it was going to happen, somebody would have seen something. But nobody I talked to ever did," said Dean Lawrence, who runs the local Chevron station.

Jack Patzke, who inspects utility poles around Bly, added, "We tested all the poles out there. We didn't see anything there that remotely looked like training targets or target shooting."

But the government sees the case as a frightening example of one man trying to raise his own terrorist militia inside the United States.

Ujaama, an American citizen born James Earnest Thompson, was well-known in Seattle as a community volunteer. But it was his alleged affiliation with a notorious Muslim cleric in London that drew the attention of federal authorities.

The cleric, Abu Hamza, was the leader of a mosque in London that also was frequented by shoe bomber Richard Reid and reputed 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. Hamza is an outspoken critic of the United States (he calls it the "United Snakes") and has praised Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He has become a cult figure, blind in one eye and with a hook where a hand was blown off, he says, by a land mine.

Ujaama was often at his side, running the mosque's Web site and appearing in videos introducing Hamza. On the Web site, Ujaama called Bin Laden a "victim of terrorism" by the United States, Britain and Israel.

In one video, Ujaama is seen telling 50 young men sitting around him on a carpet that "Osama bin Laden was framed and forced in isolation, having to leave his own land, his family, and then used as a scapegoat to arrest many Muslims."

Prosecutors say Ujaama attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and that six days before the Sept. 11 attacks he tried unsuccessfully to return there.

Instead, he turned his attention to Bly, where the flat, brown terrain was said to remind him of Afghanistan.

Prosecutors contend he brought "operatives" to Bly to scout the property and planned for guard patrols and secret passwords for the camp he would name the "Ultimate Jihad Challenge."

Ujaama allegedly discussed armed robberies, underground bunkers to store ammunition and weapons, how to make poisonous materials and the firebombing of vehicles.

The government's key witness appears to be Semi Osman of Tacoma, Wash. Osman, a former mechanic, is described as a religious leader of a now-closed Seattle mosque who allegedly worked with Ujaama in planning the training camp. It appears he will be the government's chief witness.

Ujaama was indicted in August in Seattle on conspiracy and weapons charges, specifically to teach "military and guerrilla tactics and violent jihad training." He was denied bail in October.

Awaiting trial on June 2, Ujaama has proclaimed that prosecutors are on a "witch hunt" and "trying to blackmail me." Once, during a federal court hearing, he erupted in anger, shouting that prosecutors "have lied, they've always lied" about him.

Federal Magistrate John Weinberg, referring to Ujaama's previous community service, said:

"Ten years ago, even seven years ago, nobody in this room would have predicted that Mr. Ujaama would be sitting where he is today, facing charges of this kind. His background is exemplary. But people change, and the record suggests some drastic and tragic changes for Mr. Ujaama. In short ... there's good reason to believe he has been engaged in very serious and dangerous conduct for a number of years."

Ujaama's supporters have attempted to soften his image. Attorney Peter Offenbecher said the Bly proposal was for "more of an Islamic retreat than a jihad training camp." He added that the Web site was "not anti-American. It's anti-U.S. foreign policy."

Ujaama's grandmother Neomi Nelson wrote the judge, "James may be many things, but he is not a terrorist."

Washougal, Wash.

Less than three weeks after Sept. 11, Skamania County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Mercer drove to a privately owned gravel pit to check on complaints about gunshots. He came upon a small group with a large cache of weapons:

Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, a .30-06 rifle with scope, a Chinese SKS 7.62-millimeter assault rifle, a Kel-Tec 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, and a Makarov 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

Mercer notified federal authorities, who put the Portland, Ore.-based group under surveillance. Over the next year, the government says, five of the six group members sought to join the Taliban army in Afghanistan and fight the U.S. military.

In August, all were indicted for conspiring to join a jihad and make war against American troops.

In its investigation, the FBI filled more than 7,500 pages with interview notes and other reports, executed 16 search warrants on homes, vehicles, storage containers and e-mail accounts, obtained bank and income tax records, and compiled 75 compact discs containing secretly recorded conversations.

The bureau also relied on confidential informants and an undercover agent posted at the suspects' apartment complex. This is what agents said they learned:

In early 2001, Jeffrey Leon Battle and Patrice Lumumba Ford, Muslims who lived near a mosque in Portland, wanted to train themselves as jihad warriors. On the Internet, they found writings of Osama bin Laden instructing Muslims to prepare to fight the enemies of Islam.

Battle briefly joined the Army Reserve and was assigned to a military engineering unit in Oregon. Ford and two brothers, Ahmed and Muhammad Bilal, began their own physical training in the Portland area.

Then came Sept. 11, and the Bilal brothers were heard by neighbors sometime later laughing and praising the attacks. "All the kaffirs [nonbelievers] are dead," Ahmed is said to have proclaimed.

Eight days later, the group was spotted at the gravel pit by Deputy Mercer.

By mid-October, with the group now under surveillance and U.S. troops preparing for war against the Taliban, five members decided to "disappear into Afghanistan" and fight for the Taliban. The sixth, October Martinique Lewis, Battle's former wife, would stay behind and wire them money as they traveled through Hong Kong and China and up to the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.

But they were unable to obtain clearance to get into Pakistan. Battle e-mailed Lewis and asked her to pray that "Allah will open the door soon." She wired him at least four money transfers to pay his expenses.

She also was keeping them notified of events, e-mailing Battle that "the U.S. captured three Americans out there trying to fight on 'you know who' side." She further advised that there were 2,000 U.S. Marines "out there."

On Nov. 17, the group split up, and all but one returned home.

Much of the FBI's information appears to come from a confidential witness. He is believed to be a Palestinian named Khalid, now jailed on unrelated weapons and fraud charges. When he was arrested, agents found a calendar with Sept. 11 circled in red. He was secretly wired for sound whenever he met with the others.

Battle allegedly is heard saying that the group had "their minds focused on jihad."

He allegedly said that after Sept. 11, he and several confederates considered attacking a Jewish synagogue or school in the Portland area but rejected any suicide attacks because Battle wanted to live to "do it another time."

Nevertheless, he was allegedly "willing to get caught or die if we could do at least 100 or 1,000, big numbers," apparently referring to a high body count.

With the trial scheduled for Oct. 1, defense lawyers have countered that their clients are "religious, honest and truthful." Their clients had started families, and had worked in various jobs, as a security guard, a truck driver and a nurse's aide.

The defense lawyers also said the e-mails contained no specific references to fighting for "any entity or power, or being in Afghanistan."

It remains to be seen whether their failed effort to enter Afghanistan will persuade jurors to send them to prison. Still, on one of the tapes, according to the government, Battle described post-Sept. 11 America in a way that would not sit well with any American jury.

"This," he said, "is the land of the enemy."

Lackawanna, N.Y.

The case against five young men from western New York state stands out because the defendants actually attended the Al Farouq terrorist training camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001.

Americans are prohibited from providing services or anything else of value to a terrorist group. Al Farouq was a key training camp for Al Qaeda.

One of the defendants, Faysal Galab, a U.S. citizen of Yemeni descent, has already pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and agreed to cooperate against the others.

Another Lackawanna suspect, Kamal Derwish, was killed in a CIA airstrike in Yemen in November while he was in the company of a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative.

When the men returned to the old steel town of Lackawanna from Afghanistan, they told friends and relatives of their journey to Central Asia and said they were frightened by some of what they saw, according to defense attorneys. Then came Sept. 11.

In the anxious days that followed, word of their trip made it to the local FBI office. According to the government, two of the defendants gave statements to federal agents.

But it was not until the anniversary of Sept. 11 that arrests were made. Police cars poured into Lackawanna. Apartments and buildings were cordoned off. A grocery, Arabian Foods, was searched.

The suspects were charged with providing material support to an international terrorist organization. At their first hearing in federal court in Baltimore, they appeared confused and scared.

Yahya Goba, a Lackawanna High School graduate, told the judge that he had been out of work since May 2000. He said he was $6,000 in debt. "I would like to swear on the Koran, not the Bible," he said.

At his home, the FBI turned up several cassette tapes that agents said extol the "virtues of the holy jihad, or military action against infidels, and promote martyrdom in support of the jihad."

Yasein Taher said he was a former collection agency worker, unemployed the last month. He had a 3-year-old son and owned little besides a motorcycle.

A lengthy document was found in his home that praises martyrdom and self-sacrifice for defeating the enemies of Islam, "as it strikes terror in the hearts."

Shafal Mosed tried to hide his face from a court illustrator. He made $9 an hour as a telemarketer and took part-time classes at Erie Community College.

Authorities said Mosed carried multiple credit cards under various names and had at least two Social Security numbers.

Sahim Alwan said he made $31,500 a year selling TV satellite systems. He drove a leased Ford Taurus and had $1,200 in his checking account. He described himself as deeply religious and said he had worked with troubled youths and once served as president of his mosque.

A search of his home uncovered several cassette tapes that called for fighting the "West." One tape referred to Presidents Clinton and Bush (though it was unclear which President Bush) as "donkeys for the Jews to ride."

Lastly, there was Mukhtar al-Bakri. FBI agents recovered a rifle with a sniper scope at his home. Also found was a cassette tape titled "Call to Jihad," which said: "Blessed is he who picks up his gun and bullets, for he is holy."

Al-Bakri cried when he heard the allegations against him in court.

The case centers on statements Al-Bakri and Alwan reportedly made to agents. Al-Bakri allegedly told of daily life at the five- to six-week training course in Afghanistan:

"Three o'clock wake up. Four o'clock prayer time. Five o'clock, an hour of physical fitness where they run and do push-ups. Six-thirty, breakfast. Allowed to take a nap. Eight-thirty to 11:30, military lecture, where you would learn about things like weapons.

"Thirteen hundred hours, lunch followed by prayer. Clean up the camp. More military lecture about one hour. Then they were free to sunset, dinner, prayer."

Bin Laden addressed the recruits, wearing borrowed green uniforms. He appeared under heavy guard as he told "of the need to prepare and train for the upcoming fight against Americans," Al-Bakri allegedly told the FBI.

In July, Al-Bakri allegedly e-mailed a friend, describing a "Big Meal" that was to come -- a reference the government said was to the next attack.

"The next meal will be very huge," he allegedly wrote. "No one will be able to withstand it, except those with faith."

A federal magistrate noted last fall that prosecutors had not said how the defendants planned to attack America. Magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. also wondered, "Is the government asking me to speculate some sort of potential act of violence or danger?"

Assistant U.S. Atty. William J. Hochul Jr. acknowledged, "We're not able to say at this time what it was that they were planning, or why."

Defense attorneys have suggested their clients attended the camp merely out of curiosity.

A statement from Alwan was read in court: "My purpose in attending the camp was to see what it was all about. After realizing the crazy radical mentality of the people at the camp, I decided to leave."

No trial date has been set.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The defendants and their charges

Detroit

Airport security badges found

The government says five men conspired to damage or destroy property in this country and

abroad. The case began soon after Sept. 11 when the FBI, looking for an alleged terrorist, came to the Detroit apartment of Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan and Farouk

Ali-Haimoud, and became suspicious when they found airport security badges. Also charg-

ed is an alleged collaborator, Abdella Lnu. The trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

*

Bly, Ore.

A plot to open a camp?

The government says James Ujaama, a U.S. native and former Seattle community volunteer, plotted to open his own terrorist training camp in Bly, and also had allied himself with a radical Muslim leader in London who preached violence against the U.S. and Israel. Ujaama is being held on conspiracy and weapons charges, as well as on allegations that he planned to teach "military and guerrilla tactics and violent jihad training" in this country. Trial is scheduled for June 2.

*

Washougal, Wash.

Attempts to join Afghan training site

The govenment says five people attempted to get into an Afghan terrorist training camp shortly after Sept. 11, with the help of a woman who stayed behind and wired them money. Authorities learned of the alleged conspiracy when a county deputy spotted the group firing guns in a gravel pit in Washougal. They later were indicted for conspiring to provide services to a terrorist entity. The defendants are Jeffrey Leon Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford, Ahmed Bilal, Muhammad Bilal and October Martinique Lewis. The sixth person, Habis Abdulla Al Saoud, remains at large. Trial is scheduled for Oct. 1.

*

Lackawanna, N.Y.

Yemeni Americans linked to terrorist camp

The govenment says a group of Yemeni Americans participated in an Afghan terrorist camp before Sept. 11, a violation of federal law prohibiting services to a terrorist entity. The defendants are Yahya Goba, Yasein Taher, Shafal Mosed, Sahim Alwan and Mukhtar al-Bakri. A fifth defendant, Faysal Galab, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and is cooperating with prosecutors. A sixth suspect, Kamal Derwish, was killed in a CIA airstrike in Yemen in November. No trial date has been set.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction Terrorist trials -- An article Monday in Section A on upcoming terrorist trials identified a defendant in Detroit as Abdella Lnu, as he was named in the indictment along with numerous aliases. He has since been officially identified by the government as Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi.
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