Sighting of Terrorist in Lodi Questioned
An FBI informant shocked a Sacramento federal courtroom this week when he testified that he had frequently seen Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader in a mosque here during 1998 and 1999.
But terrorism experts and even federal officials expressed serious doubts Tuesday about Naseem Khan’s testimony, saying there is little aside from his statements to suggest that Egyptian terrorist Ayman Zawahiri spent time in the sleepy Central Valley farming community.
Defense attorneys said the statements raise serious credibility issues about Khan, the government’s chief witness against a Lodi ice cream truck driver and his son.
If Khan’s reliability becomes a factor in the case, the prosecution of Umer Hayat, 48, and his son, Hamid Hayat, 23, could become the latest in a long string of problems the federal government has faced in trying alleged terrorists. Earlier this week, a Virginia judge halted the sentencing trial of Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in order to investigate apparent witness tampering by a federal attorney in the case.
Elsewhere, prosecutorial missteps have prompted judges to toss out convictions, and several juries have sided with the accused. Jurors acquitted a Florida college professor whose support of a Palestinian group prompted a terrorism indictment, while a case flopped against an Idaho computer science student facing prison time for designing a website that included information on terrorists.
Khan, 32, testified that he first told the FBI about Zawahiri in late 2001. The bureau subsequently hired Khan and paid him more than $200,000 in salary and expenses to infiltrate Lodi’s Muslim community and secretly record conversations there between 2002 and 2005.
The younger Hayat is charged with providing material support to terrorism by attending a Pakistani training camp in 2003. Both father and son are charged with lying to the FBI.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani community of farmworkers, welders and truck drivers, many of whom have lived in Lodi for generations, reacted to the reports that one of the world’s most notorious terrorists may have lived and worshiped here with a mixture of outrage and disbelief that the government would take the testimony seriously.
“What would he be doing here? We are Pakistani,” said shop owner Mohammed Shoaib. “If there were an Egyptian speaking Arabic somebody would have seen him.” Most of the estimated 2,500 Muslims in Lodi speak Urdu or Pashto, two major Pakistani languages.
“The FBI should know better,” Shoaib said. “We don’t know what is coming next. Maybe he’ll say he saw Osama [bin Laden] in Lodi or Stockton.”
National terrorism experts and U.S. officials also expressed doubt that Zawahiri spent time in Lodi, particularly during 1998 and 1999, the years in which Khan said he frequently saw the Egyptian attending the modest brick-and-wood-frame mosque in Lodi.
“This is pretty far-fetched,” said Rand Corp. terrorism specialist Brian Jenkins.
Security consultant Daniel Coleman, former FBI case agent for Osama bin Laden, said that “by 1998, Zawahiri was in Afghanistan and never returned to the United States. He was on TV in Afghanistan in 1998.”
Several U.S. counter-terrorism officials in Washington, D.C., also dismissed Khan’s assertion that he saw Zawahiri “coming or going” from the California mosque.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity and only if their government agencies were not identified, saying they were not authorized to speak about the issue, particularly during a criminal trial.
In the years immediately after the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Zawahiri, who speaks fluent English, is known to have visited the United States on several occasions, including one trip to Northern California in 1991 under the assumed name Dr. Abdel Muez. Using the pseudonym, Zawahiri visited mosques in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Stockton and raised money that he said was for Afghan refugees.
But federal officials, including one who has long tracked Zawahiri, said they were virtually certain that the Egyptian had not entered the United States after 1995.
On Aug. 7, 1998, truck bombs blew up two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania nearly simultaneously. Within hours, U.S. officials said Tuesday, both Bin Laden and Zawahiri were placed at the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list -- a designation that was likely to generate thousands of wanted posters with photos of the men for widespread circulation in and outside the United States.
“So I don’t see him really flitting around California” after that, said one U.S. official.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Atty. Laura Ferris, Khan testified he was first approached by federal agents in late 2001 at his apartment in Bend, Ore., where he worked as a convenience store manager and McDonald’s restaurant worker.
Khan testified Monday that as FBI agents questioned him, photographs of Bin Laden and Zawahiri coincidentally appeared on his television screen.
He told the agents that he had seen Zawahiri in the Lodi mosque.
Attorney Wazhma Mojaddidi, who represents Hamid Hayat, speculated Tuesday that Khan’s statements about seeing Zawahiri in Lodi could have triggered the investigation that ultimately led to the case against his clients. “It’s possible that he may have sparked this whole investigation with this ridiculous claim,” she said. “The government in effect has impeached its own witness.”
Even the federal agents who followed up on Khan’s assertion appear to have quickly abandoned interest in documenting the Zawahiri connection. In hours of videotaped interrogation of Umer and Hamid Hayat filed in federal court, the two were never questioned about knowing or seeing Zawahiri.
Basim Elkarra, Sacramento director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that none of the Lodi residents his group represents was asked by the FBI about Zawahiri’s alleged attendance at the mosque.
Instead the investigation seemed to target the town’s two imams, Mohammad Adil Khan and Shabbir Ahmed.
In the videotaped interrogations, FBI Agent Timothy Harrison describes the imams as “the big fish” in the case. However, both religious leaders were allowed to be voluntarily deported to their native Pakistan.
As a result, the case that began with allegations about super-terrorist Zawahiri, ended up as a lone federal prosecution of the Hayats. If convicted, Hamid Hayat faces up to 39 years in prison. His father faces a maximum sentence of 16 years.
“They came up short on their investigation and they had to find a way to justify all this expense so they came up with an ice cream truck driver and his son,” said defense attorney Johnny L. Griffin, who represents Umer Hayat.
After midday prayers at the low-slung Lodi mosque, several worshipers vented their frustration over the federal investigation that has cast a shadow over their community. Parents complained that their children are taunted at school as “terrorists.”
One man, who identified himself only as a 45-year-old welder who has lived in Lodi for 20 years, said that neighbors with whom he was friendly for years no longer speak to him. “In my neighborhood now, when they see me, they just go inside.”
Mosque President Mohammed Shoaib, no relation to the shopkeeper of the same name, said Khan’s testimony has “divided the community and harmed the Muslim community.”
Shoaib said he has prayed at the mosque every day for many years and never encountered anyone resembling Zawahiri. “It’s total nonsense,” Shoaib said.
Romney reported from Lodi, Bailey from Sacramento and Meyer from Washington. Staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this report from Sacramento.