Monday, April 18, 2005

U.S. cleric is being tried in nation's terror court

Debraa Erdley

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- On the surface, little distinguishes the federal courthouse here from its counterparts across the nation.
The scales of justice, the metal detectors, the federal marshals, even the courtrooms themselves could easily be transplanted into any of scores of U.S. cities.

It's the case docket here that makes the difference.

Over the last four years, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, once known for espionage cases, has become the nation's terror court.

From the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through Dec. 31, 2003, the district, one of 90 regional federal court districts, handled one-fifth of all terrorism cases in the U.S., a study by a Syracuse University group showed.

The government since has ceased releasing records that allow for such comparisons, but recent events suggest the trend continues. Paul McNulty, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, estimated his office uses 25 to 30 percent of its resources on terror-related cases.

Now, in a case legal experts and civil libertarians are watching, prosecutors are asking a jury to convict Ali Al-Timimi, 41, an American Islamic scholar, of trying to help the Taliban. The defendant maintains his innocence, and his supporters argue the charges are clear evidence of an anti-Muslim bias by the government.

The case raises the issue of when free speech crosses the line and becomes aiding and abetting terrorist activities.

Al-Timimi was known in Muslim circles around the world for his lectures on tape and on the Internet. His supporters point to well-known lectures calling for peace in the wake of the first World Trade Centers attack in 1993.

Prosecutors say he had another side: He was the person immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, who encouraged a group of young Muslims in northern Virginia to go to Afghanistan to train with the Taliban for jihad -- Muslim holy war -- against the United States.

The Pittsburgh connection

Al-Timimi also was listed on the advisory board of Assirat Al-Mustaqueem, an Arabic language magazine published out of Pittsburgh from 1991 to 2000. The magazine called for holy war against Christians and Jews. It also lauded the international army Osama bin Laden assembled for the Taliban in Afghanistan and once praised Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel who took credit for last fall's bloody Beslen school massacre in which more than 300 people, many of them children, were killed.

At issue in the two-week case, which goes to the jury as soon as Monday, is whether his comments were simply sentiments of a religious leader exercising his First Amendment rights or a conscious attempt to ignite a homegrown holy war in the shadow of the nation's capital just days after Sept. 11. If convicted, Al-Timimi could face life in prison.

Al-Timimi, 41, of Fairfax, says he is innocent. His supporters argue the case is ridiculous, and for the government to even file charges is evidence of anti-Muslim bias.

The case before Judge Leonie M. Brinkema falls under a law that provides penalties for those who provide "material support" to designated terrorist organizations.

"It's primarily a tool the government uses to break up sleeper cells, to break up al-Qaida and al-Qaida-like organizations," said Jeffrey Addicott, of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

"Most of the cases have been against people who've gone to terrorist training camps or written checks to terrorist organizations. The gray area is: How far can you go with speech before it becomes material support?"

Government prosecutors contend Al-Timimi crossed the line.

The terrorism focus

Citing ongoing proceedings, McNulty was reluctant to comment specifically on the Al-Timimi case, but he isn't shy about his office's track record on terrorism.

His staff has increased by about 25 percent over the last three years. The bulk of that increase has gone toward a new terrorism and national security unit, McNulty said.

Although the group has handled its share of high-profile cases, McNulty said it has focused on shutting down financial support for terrorist organizations and prosecuting immigration fraud.

"We have cases involving millions of dollars going to the Middle East. ...We're trying to take that money out of the system," he said.

While cases such as Al-Timimi's were based on investigations in the Eastern District of Virginia, others were directed there by the Justice Department.


John Walker Lindh, the southern California man arrested with the Taliban in Afghanistan, was prosecuted here.

Zacharias Moussauoi, the French citizen suspected of being the 20th bomber in the Sept. 11 attacks, is expected to stand trial here late this year or early next.

Ahmed Omar Abu-Ali, who was detained in Saudi Arabia for two years before being returned to the U.S. and charged with plotting to launch an al-Qaida cell and assassinate President Bush, is being prosecuted here.

Lastly, the so-called "paintball jihad" case was prosecuted here, also before Judge Brinkema. It's that case that spurred the Al-Timimi prosecution. The "paintball jihad" case, concluded last year, involved charges against 11 Muslim men who met and talked about holy war and trained on target ranges and paintball fields in Virginia for that holy war. Nine ultimately were convicted, while two others were acquitted. In testimony, they pointed to Al-Timini as their spiritual leader.
Why Alexandria?

McNulty speculated several factors, including the Alexandria court's proximity to the nation's capital, entered into the decisions about where cases are prosecuted.

"We have experienced judges, judges who've seen classified documents and know how to handle touchy issues," he said.

But he conceded appellate court rulings for the government in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court, which covers the district, may be just as critical as the efficiency and experience of the trial court here.

"I think when the government is looking at cases where they know there will be appellate issues, there is the added attraction here of being in a district where the appellate court is open to the government's position," McNulty said.

Throughout his trial over the last two weeks, defense witnesses said Al-Timimi tried to dissuade the would-be jihadis after learning of their plans, but prosecutors argued otherwise, saying Al-Timimi's speeches, statements and published works promoted holy war.

Prosecutors repeatedly played tapes of lectures in which Al-Timimi condemned the Mideast peace process as a plot to eliminate Islam. He called Christians "our enemy until the Day of Judgment."

Defense attorney Edward MacMahon warned jurors at the start of the trial that some of his client's comments might constitute hate speech. He insisted, however, that those comments were protected under the First Amendment right of free speech and had nothing to do with anyone going to war against the U.S.

Debra Erdley can be reached at or 412-320-7996
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