Reporting from New Bern, N.C.
Federal prosecutors call it a slam-dunk case of "homegrown terrorism" — an American-born Muslim convert conspiring with young Muslim American recruits in North Carolina to kill or kidnap non-Muslims overseas as part of a violent jihadist plot.
Lawyers for the three accused young men call it an overblown prosecution of impressionable youngsters who made foolish Facebook boasts and spent too much time shooting guns and praising jihad.
A federal jury will begin deliberations Wednesday on whether Omar Aly Hassan, Ziyad Yaghi and Hysen Sherifi, all of Raleigh, N.C., are guilty of conspiring to kill or kidnap people overseas or of providing material support for a terrorist plot to kill non-Muslims.
As lawyers presented closing arguments Tuesday, they focused on the ringleader of the purported plot. Daniel Boyd, 41, a Marine officer's son who converted to Islam as a teenager, was condemned as "every parent's worst nightmare."
Boyd was portrayed as a Svengali-like figure who indoctrinated young Muslims in a scheme to wage jihad overseas. He sported long hair and a wild beard, and spouted jihadist rhetoric. He called himself Saifullah, Arabic for "Sword of God."
Under a plea deal, a clean-shaven Boyd testified against his three codefendants in the three-week trial. His sons, Dylan Boyd, 24, and Zakariya Boyd, 21, have also been charged in the alleged plot; they too accepted plea deals and testified.
At issue in the case is just how far Muslims in the U.S. can promote violent jihad and spread radical Islamic propaganda in the post-Sept. 11 era, even while committing no violent acts. Like most federal terrorism cases since 2001, this prosecution was preemptive. Suspects were arrested as the alleged terrorist plot unfolded — but before they would have been able to commit violence.
Jason Kellhofer, a federal prosecutor, told jurors the defendants were motivated by "hate — quite a lot of hate." He said the jihad plot involved "murderous intent based on a twisted view of a religion, Islam."
Defense lawyers said the defendants were guilty only of monumentally poor judgment and youthful bravado in openly praising jihad. Their Facebook raps extolled violence against non-Muslims, including the line, "I smoke a Jew like a ciggy."
Dan Boyce, representing Hassan, dismissed it as Muslim gangster rap. "This was stupid stuff by teenagers," he told the jury. "But Muslim gangster rap doesn't mean you're a terrorist."
A July 2009 indictment said the defendants provided material support to terrorists by undergoing weapons training and traveling overseas to scout targets.
The FBI recruited three informants, code-named Jawbreaker, Hammerhead and Crosstown, who secretly taped conversations with the defendants.
The defendants spoke in emails of wanting to kill non-Muslims; they exchanged bloody Al Qaeda videos; and they shared CDs containing diatribes by Anwar Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last month. One video showed a live beheading by terrorists.
All told, the government collected 750 hours of audio and videotape. In addition, FBI agents said they found nearly two dozen guns and 27,000 rounds of ammunition buried in a bunker under Daniel Boyd's home.
But defense lawyers attacked the use of paid informants, saying they had an incentive to shape their testimony to support the government's case after accepting more than $200,000 from the FBI.
And Boyce said the defendants' comments about jihad, no matter how offensive, were protected as free speech. Similarly, shooting at targets — a popular pastime in rural North Carolina — is protected by the 2nd Amendment, he said.
Robert McAfee, representing Sherifi, said prosecutors provided no specifics — no locations, no dates, no details, and no named targets for the killings and kidnappings alleged in the indictment.
"They proved suspicion. They proved fear of a religion, but they did not provide proof of a crime," McAfee told the jury.
He added: "Mr. Sherifi said some stupid things, but that is not an expression of criminal intent."
Hassan, 22, Sherifi, 24, and Yaghi, 21, graduated from or attended high schools in the Raleigh area, and Hassan attended North Carolina State University. All three speak fluent English and are intimately acquainted with American youth culture.
Hassan and Yaghi are American citizens. Sherifi, a native of Kosovo, is a permanent U.S. resident.
The three men came under Daniel Boyd's influence, according to testimony, and agreed to travel overseas to scout "battlefields." They spent hours discussing Islam and jihad with the Boyds or with the FBI informants.
Kellhofer described the Boyd home as "a bed of diseased thinking."
Boyd faces life in prison plus 15 years. His sons face 15 years in prison. The Boyds will be sentenced after the trial.
Defense lawyers reminded the jury that all three Boyds testified that the defendants did not conspire to attack people or provide material support to terrorists.
Further, they pointed out that most of the guns belonged to Boyd. Referring to a rifle that Hassan had legally purchased, attorney Boyce said, "In down-east North Carolina, there are plenty of people with a lot more guns than that — and they're legal."