A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted four men -- including the alleged leader of a radical Islamist prison gang -- accusing them of plotting a string of terrorist attacks on U.S. military facilities and synagogues in Southern California.
The six-count indictment accuses Kevin Lamar James, 29; Levar Haney Washington, 25; and Gregory Vernon Patterson and Hammad Riaz Samana, both 21, of planning attacks on sites including National Guard recruitment centers and the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
All four were charged with conspiracy to levy war against the U.S. government through terrorism. The plot, the indictment says, was hatched by James, currently an inmate at one of the two state prisons in Folsom, Calif., and alleged founder of a small gang of radical Muslims.
Government officials say they have no evidence that the men were tied to Al Qaeda or any other foreign terrorist group.
In interviews over the last few weeks, family members and friends said they had no inkling the men were involved in terrorism.
Washington, his face and neck scrawled with Rollin' 60s street gang tattoos, converted to Islam in state prison, where he was doing time for beating a former gang member unconscious at a 1998 rap concert.
Patterson took classes at El Camino College and Cal State Northridge and still lived at home with his parents, both community college employees. A former Catholic school student described by acquaintances as bookish and quiet, Patterson fell in love with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and converted three years ago.
Samana was raised a Muslim in Pakistan and moved with his family five years ago to an apartment in Inglewood. He worked at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, attended Santa Monica College, played cricket and ran cross-country.
Despite their different backgrounds, the three young men shared a faith that led them to encounter each other at the Jamat-e-Masjidul Islam mosque, across the street from Samana's apartment, three months ago.
Authorities allege that their meeting was a key moment in a complex conspiracy that had its roots 400 miles away at California State Prison, Sacramento, which is actually in Folsom.
There, James dreamed up the idea of attacking targets in Southern California and urged Washington, then a fellow prisoner, to implement the plan when released in November 2004, the indictment says.
Prison officials years ago marked James as a radical Muslim and a security threat, and transferred him from another state prison after he allegedly founded a prison gang called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, or the Assembly of Authentic Islam. Authorities say the group espoused such a violent interpretation of the Koran that they scattered its followers across the state prison system in hopes of squelching the movement.
The alleged actions of Samana and Patterson trouble officials, because neither had a criminal record. But authorities say they are equally troubled that James and Washington were able to hatch the alleged plot at a state prison -- without any apparent ties to international terrorist organizations.
James, who also went by several aliases, including Shakyh Shahaab Murshid and Abdul-Wahid Ash-Sheena, "emerged from the Nation of Islam," said one official, who declined to be identified because of the government's ban on speaking publicly about the case. "He decided they were not radical enough."
The Nation of Islam, currently led by Louis Farrakhan, is one of the largest Muslim sects in U.S. prisons, though it differs from mainstream Islam in its adherence to the teachings of the late black separatist Elijah Muhammad. Although the group has been criticized in the past for harshly condemning the U.S. government and making anti-Semitic remarks, it publicly opposes terrorism.
James created Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh while in prison at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, according to investigators.
He bolstered his Islamist credentials by claiming to have spent time in Sudan, sources close to the investigation said. He clandestinely distributed a protocol for his organization that justified attacks on "enemies of Islam," including the U.S. government, Jews, supporters of Israel and other "infidels," the indictment says.
This is how Washington allegedly got involved. Before Washington left Folsom, James directed him to find recruits without felony records, acquire firearms and then appoint one follower to learn about explosives or to recruit a bomb maker, the indictment says. (Washington's attorney declined to comment because the lawyer said he would not represent Washington in fighting the federal charges.)
It was about six months after Washington left Folsom that he arrived at the mosque in Inglewood and met Samana and Patterson.
Samana had long attended the mosque. Patterson started attending in March, according to worshipers who saw the pair studying the Koran together in the back of the congregation hall. Washington showed up around May, his tattoos partially hidden behind an improvised headdress, his violent past obscured by a placid demeanor and a friendly greeting -- assalam alaikum, or "peace be upon you." Worshipers at the mosque recalled Washington's booming voice as he offered the traditional adhan, or call to prayer.
"Once I asked him why he covers his face," said Imam Hashim Ansari, one of two clerics who lead the mosque. "He told me that he was in a gang before he became a Muslim and had tattoos. He said he was ashamed to show his tattoos in front of other Muslims." Islam prohibits tattooing, because it is considered mutilating the body.
Other than being a meeting place for the three men, officials say there is no evidence that the mosque or its members had any role in the alleged conspiracy.
The group had gone as far as drawing up a list of potential targets, federal prosecutors claim, and began robbing gas stations to raise money for the attacks. The indictment says the defendants were trying to find an explosives expert to help them.
Authorities said they learned of the potential plot when Torrance police investigating the robberies found lists of targets and other information at Washington's apartment in South Los Angeles.
The indictment alleges that James continued to control the plot from inside prison, receiving a June communication from Patterson, allegedly updating him on what the indictment calls "the progress of the planned war against the United States Government through terrorism."
Patterson and Samana appear to be unlikely terrorist recruits.
Patterson is the son of two educators -- his father a college professor, his mother an administrator at Harbor College.
Patterson's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, described his client's parents, Rodney and Abbie Patterson, as patriotic Americans who raised their son as a Christian.
"His family wants people to know that they believe in this country," McKesson said Wednesday. "They are against religious extremism, and they support the troops wherever they are fighting for freedom in this country." The parents, he added, were disturbed by the notion that "they may be responsible for raising a young terrorist."
As a teenager, Patterson first attended Junipero Serra High School, a Catholic school in Gardena whose alumni include such storied athletes as baseball's Barry Bonds and football's Tom Brady.
Vice Principal Audet Shoukry recalled Patterson as "an overachieving nerd" who left the school during his freshman year to take advantage of the program at King/Drew Magnet High School. His mother was active in the Parent Teacher Organization, she said.
McKesson said Patterson attended El Camino College in Torrance and Cal State Northridge. Patterson also worked for six months at a duty-free shop at Los Angeles International Airport. The indictment says he researched El Al, Israel's national airline, on the Internet.
Imam Ansari said that soon after Patterson started attending the Inglewood mosque, he became friends with Samana.
"Since Patterson was a new Muslim, he kept asking Hammad questions and Hammad would tell him," said Ansari.
Samana had been conducting basic, one-on-one Arabic classes with Patterson for several months, Ansari said. They met regularly at the mosque, he said, usually within earshot of other worshipers.
Samana's friends recalled him as a studious and mild-mannered person, devoted to his family, proficient in sports and orthodox in his Muslim beliefs.
He used his salary as a clerk at Barnes & Noble to help support his family, according to friends.
Samana's apartment is in a neighborhood of 1960s-style tenements, duplexes and single-story homes. African Americans and Latinos predominate in the area, along with many South Asian immigrants who walk to mosque wearing traditional robes, sandals and the occasional veil.
Ansari said Samana started coming to Jamat-e-Masjidul Islam regularly two years ago and last year became his volunteer assistant, a role that had him cleaning the ablution sinks, sweeping the shaded courtyard and vacuuming the narrow congregation hall.
Ansari also was teaching Samana, whose first language is Urdu, to memorize the Koran in Arabic so he would be able to recite it verbatim during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Samana had memorized 30 chapters, or about one-fourth of Islam's holiest book.
Ansari said that he never discussed politics or even many religious matters with Samana. Their sole focus, the imam said, was on memorization techniques, proper pronunciation, cadence and rhythm. They didn't even delve into the meaning of the words they recited, Ansari said.
"Sometimes I would see him playing basketball or cricket and I would tell him, go memorize the Koran!" Ansari said.
Mohammed A. Faheem, a friend and neighbor, said Samana often led prayers for their cricket team, part of a community league. But this year, Samana stopped playing sports so he could concentrate on his collegiate and religious studies.
During a brief interview last month, Samana's father, Riaz, denied that his son had done anything wrong.
"I think this is all a mistake," he said while walking to the store for a pack of cigarettes. "He's a good boy. Yes, devout."
Samana's attorney, Timothy Lannen, said Wednesday: "Hammad Samana is a peace-loving, law-abiding member of our community. Whether or not he erred in his choice of associates, one thing is clear: He did not intend at any time to commit violence against anyone."
Mohammed Ali, 21, another former teammate, recalled Samana's chiding teammates when they swore aloud during cricket matches.
"If we used bad words, he would basically say, 'Don't do that,' " said Ali.
Samana's former classmates at Santa Monica College said he wore a traditional robe and prayer cap on Fridays, a day when many Muslims attend congregational prayer services. They also recalled his complaints about American materialism.
"He said, 'People, nowadays, money has changed them. Money has changed everybody. Everybody is greedy,' " recalled Candelario Rodriguez, Samana's teammate on the Santa Monica College cross-country team in 2002.
Once, Samana told Rodriguez that he disagreed with how some in the United States viewed the Sept. 11 attacks.
"He said they were blaming religion and religion didn't have anything to do with it," Rodriguez said. "They were just people who were" trying to send a message.
Times staff writers Jenifer Warren in Sacramento and Stuart Pfeifer and Megan Garvey in Los Angeles and correspondent Robert Hollis in San Francisco contributed to this report.