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From behind bars, waging a verbal jihad

Times Staff Writer

Staring at their accusers from a glass courtroom cell, the 30 defendants look more like thugs, laborers or fundamentalists than writers.

But they fought their jihad with the pen as well as the sword, prosecutors say. The men are charged with plotting to bomb the high-security courthouse where they are now on trial. The evidence centers on about 500 letters they wrote, mostly behind bars.

The handwritten texts reveal an epistolary extremist subculture. They are voices of rage and affection, erudition and ignorance. The letters chart the radicalization of a group that was aligned with North African terrorist networks, prosecutors say, and had contacts from the Netherlands to Lompoc.

“We thank God for having put jihad at the highest level, and those who prepare others to elevate the name of God and his religion will be rewarded,” a Lebanese defendant named Hoari Jera wrote in late 2004. “The brothers who are in the mountains fight with bullets and bombs, and those who are in the prisons of the infidels fight through the preaching of Islam with the heart, tongue and pen.”

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Like the others, Jera was a prolific jailhouse wordsmith. From a prison in the Spanish city of Leon, the 27-year-old fired off letters to the accused ringleader, Abderrahmane Tahiri, 34, a Moroccan who was doing time for credit-card fraud in Salamanca and then Mallorca.

The balding, burly Tahiri has displayed his power during the trial, leading a rowdy protest that ended in scuffles with bailiffs. He has deep knowledge of the Koran. He allegedly underwent terrorist training in Algeria with a network that is now known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and that claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings this month in Algeria.

The Times has obtained the defendants’ correspondence with one another and with friends and relatives. Written in Arabic, Spanish and French, the letters discuss topics including religion, court cases and family entanglements. But they return obsessively to themes of combat and death.

“I stopped the hunger strike five days ago, so I am ready to start the fight against the enemies of God,” Jera reported to Tahiri in late 2002. “Because there is a big war here between me and the prison guards, but only verbal, but from now on if someone lays a hand on me I will hit him with all my strength.”

The jailhouse missives were a continuation of holy war by other means, but went largely undetected, prosecutors say. Seeking inspiration, the inmates corresponded with three terrorists convicted in the World Trade Center bombing that killed six people in New York in 1993. The militants here admired the trio in U.S. federal prisons because of their historic attack on America and because of letters and poems they published in Arabic presses after their incarceration.

Responding to Tahiri from the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Mohammed Amin Salameh sounded as if he were schooling a novice scribe. The Jordanian, who is serving a 116-year sentence for the World Trade Center bombing, gave the Moroccan advice and the address of a newspaper editor in London.

“As far as the Al Quds magazine, I think you have more chances to publish there than in the Al Hayat magazine,” Salameh wrote. He said that he had published at least eight articles and was writing another: “I want to show with my article the falseness of the American system. See if you can photocopy my article and send it to me by mail because I want a free subscription to Al Quds Al Arabia, and to do that I need to show them that I already have published several articles in their magazine.”

Salameh ranted about the U.S. penal system. “In this country, prisons are considered an industry and in every prison there is a third or quarter of the inmates who are working for a little money, even the inmates call this slavery,” he wrote. “The American Constitution says that the era of slavery ended, except for people who committed crimes.”

In his last letter in the court file, Salameh told the Moroccan that he had been transferred to the nation’s top-security federal prison in Florence, Colo. Guards chained him whenever he left his isolation cell, and confiscated all but eight of his books, he said.

“I am in a lamentable situation,” he wrote. “I am prohibited all information . . . and only allowed to write letters on condition of translating them into English, whether those I get or receive. . . . The most dangerous inmates in the United States are in this prison.”

The transatlantic correspondence took place in 2002 as Tahiri founded his own group, the Martyrs of Morocco, in the Topas prison of Salamanca and A Lama in Pontevedra, where one of his lieutenants was jailed.

There are about 8,000 Muslims in Spain’s prisons, about 133 of them convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Spain has one of Europe’s most liberal penal systems: generous furloughs and paroles, extensive rehabilitation and education programs. The letters escaped scrutiny for a long time because the writers were classified as petty criminals, not extremists, prosecutors say. Moreover, the Spanish and U.S. prison systems lack enough translators to screen mail written in Arabic, officials say.

Designating himself the emir, or chief, Tahiri wrote to his second-in-command: “I will give you good news and it is that I have formed a group of good brothers who are ready to die at any moment for the cause of God. We are waiting to get out to go directly to work, and you with us as well. It is our duty to think and plan, we have men, weapons too, we don’t lack places, just practice.”

As his network took shape, Tahiri received dozens of letters from other cellblocks and prisons, prosecutors say. Inmates reported they had won “great respect” by organizing ostentatious prayer sessions, aggressively recruiting fellow Muslims and brawling with inmates and guards. The letters are filled with ritual salutations and religious rhetoric, expressing profound dependence on the leader.

“What does a mujahedin have to do before committing a suicide operation?” Mohamed Boukiri asked in a letter from a prison in Zaragoza. He told Tahiri they would triumph “like the Prophet Mohamed in the battle of Tauk when the Muslims defeated the Romans after withstanding the onslaught of the enemy for two months.”

In the same vein, Adila Mamoun wrote: “I dreamed I was fighting at your side and they shot at us and I asked you if we were going to die as martyrs and you said yes, and just then I woke up.”

An inmate named Abdel Wahab requested help interpreting a Koranic text and finding a sermon about beauty. And he wrestled with a philosophical question: “If there are infidels who treat me well, am I supposed to treat them equally well? Because I have many people here who show great concern for me.”

Most of the defendants have limited schooling; some struggled to express themselves. Scrawling in what a court translator calls “uncultured Arabic,” inmate Siah Moktar referred to himself as Tahiri’s “brother and student.” Moktar drew pictures on his letters: a tank shooting stick-figure soldiers, a teardrop. He declared: “If jihad in prison counted, I would have killed half the people in here.”

Talk gave way to action when Tahiri was released, prosecutors say. He traveled as far as the Netherlands, but stayed in touch with henchmen involved in robbery and forgery, prosecutor Dolores Delgado said.

In July 2004, Tahiri enlisted a Mauritanian ex-convict to buy a ton of explosive material, prosecutors say. The group allegedly developed a plan to ram a truck bomb into the building here housing the High Court that handles nationwide anti-terrorism cases, hoping to kill law enforcement officials and destroy archives, Delgado said.

“May God make us martyrs,” Tahiri said in a wiretapped phone call to Spain from Switzerland a month later, “and liberate our prisoners from the prisons of the infidels and the tyrants.”

But police were on high alert because of the Madrid train bombings in May of that year. They had detected the jailhouse group, transferred the key figures to new prisons and shadowed suspects at large, using informants and wiretaps. In late 2004, police made dozens of arrests at homes and prisons.

When officers searched the cell of Abdelkrim Benesmail in Gijon, they found bomb-making formulas. Benesmail assaulted the officers, according to the indictment, screaming: “I must kill you, sooner or later I must kill you. . . . Kill me, I am ready to die.”

As often happens in complex terrorism investigations, the trial has not been easy. Investigators did not find any explosives. The defendants deny everything, claiming any talk of a bomb was a joke. Moreover, an imam who was a star informant has backed away from previous accounts. On the witness stand, he accused police of pressuring him to implicate the suspects.

In the end, the verdict could hinge on the court’s interpretation of the jailhouse letters. Tahiri’s crew allegedly saw words as weapons. Now, prosecutors are trying to turn those weapons against them.

Five years ago, an inmate warned Tahiri about the dangers of the pen.

“Be careful with the letters,” he wrote. “There are a lot of innocent people in prison because of letters.”

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rotella@latimes.com


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