Two members of a prison-based Islamic terrorist cell that authorities say was poised to attack military sites, synagogues and other targets across Southern California pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to conspiring to wage war against the United States.
The plot, which police stumbled upon during a routine investigation into a gas station holdup, represented one of the most realistic terrorism threats on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, experts said. The case also raised concerns about whether the country’s prisons could serve as recruiting centers for Islamic extremists.
As the defendants entered their pleas, prosecutors made public several documents detailing the group’s operations. One handwritten paper, titled “Modes of Attack,” includes a list of National Guard facilities, Army recruiting centers and something referred to as the “camp site of Zion.”
Another two-page document, labeled “Blueprint 2005,” sets out eight tasks to be accomplished in furtherance of the plot. “We will need bombs that can be activated from a distance,” one entry reads. “Acquire two weapons (pistols) with silencers,” reads another.
Kevin Lamar James and Levar Haney Washington, members of the homegrown radical Islamic organization dubbed JIS, entered guilty pleas in front of U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney in federal court in Santa Ana.
James, who founded the group while in California state prison in 1997, recruited Washington years later when they were both inmates at New Folsom prison near Sacramento. After his release in 2004, Washington recruited a third member, Gregory Patterson, with whom he committed a string of gas station robberies to fund the group’s planned attacks, authorities said.
The plot was uncovered after Torrance police investigating a gas station robbery in 2005 identified Washington and Patterson as suspects and obtained a search warrant for their South Los Angeles apartment.
The unsuspecting officers found documents including a lengthy manifesto and a list of potential targets in the L.A. area. Days later, in a search of James’ prison cell, authorities found a draft of a statement that was to be released to the media after the group’s first fatal attack.
“This incident is the first in a series of incidents to come in a plight to defend and propagate traditional Islam in its purity,” the statement read. It warned “sincere Muslims” to avoid potential targets, including “those Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of an Israeli state.”
The case quickly mushroomed into a widespread terrorism investigation involving multiple local and federal agencies, including the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Thomas P. O’Brien, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said the group was in the advanced stages of planning when the plot began to unravel.
“At the time of their arrest, it appeared they were on the verge of staging an attack here in Los Angeles,” O’Brien said during an afternoon news conference in downtown L.A. at which he was flanked by other top law enforcement officials involved in the case. “An untold number of lives may have been saved when this terrorist cell was dismantled.”
Salvador Hernandez, who heads the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the case reflected an increased cooperation between local and federal authorities in combating terrorism. Without such cooperation, he said, “we might be standing here today discussing the defendants’ success rather than ours.”
In court, James, 31, wore beige jail clothes and was shackled by a waist chain and handcuffs. During the hearing, he sat passively and answered “yes” or “no” to the judge’s questions.
His attorney Robert Carlin stood by James’ side when the judge asked the defendant to stand and be sworn in. “I know it will be difficult for you to raise your right hand, but do the best you can,” the judge said.
James founded Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, also known as a JIS, in 1997. It was then that he began drafting the lengthy JIS protocol, a 103-page collection of writings about his religious “movement,” aimed at teaching his “students” about Islam and how to practice their faith.
The document -- parts of which are neatly handwritten in Arabic -- covers required readings for his followers. One section for new recruits tells them to show “obedience to established authority” within the organization and instructs them on the “importance of being esoteric or clandestine in our activities.”
The group’s tenets were based on “James’ radical interpretation of Islam, which imposed a duty to attack infidels, or enemies of Islam, including the United States government and supporters of Israel,” O’Brien said at the news conference.
While imprisoned in 2004, James recruited Washington, who swore an oath to James and JIS shortly before being released from New Folsom that same year, authorities said.
Once out, Washington recruited Patterson and another co-defendant, Hammad Samana, who has since been found unfit to stand trial and is receiving psychiatric care at a federal prison facility.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Gregory W. Staples, one of the prosecutors on the case, said the initial plan was to wait until James was due to be released from prison in 2006 before engaging in an attack. The group members began to identify and surveil targets, authorities said, as Washington and Patterson robbed 10 gas stations to finance their planned attacks.
“But the evidence we uncovered shows that Washington decided he wanted to act before James got out,” Staples said.
Among the evidence was the “Modes of Attack” document discovered in the apartment that Washington and Patterson shared when Torrance police arrested them in July 2005.
In addition to the military sites and synagogues, the document listed LAX and the Israeli Consulate as potential targets.
Moreover, Staples said, “they were discussing dates such as Yom Kippur” and Sept. 11, “which was literally two months off from when they were arrested,” he said. “So from their conversations and the notes they wrote to one another, it was clear they were ready to act within a few months.”
LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversaw his department’s role in the investigation, offered this blunt assessment:
“This cell was closer to going operational at the time than anyone since 9/11.”
James faces 20 years in prison. Washington, who also pleaded guilty to using a gun during the plot, faces 25. James is scheduled to be sentenced March 31; Washington, April 28. Patterson is expected to plead guilty Monday.
Asked at the news conference whether JIS had other members at large or remained a threat, Staples offered a quick response.
“No,” he said. “They’re out of business.”
Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.