2 Arab Immigrants Convicted of Terrorism
DETROIT (AP) _ Two Arab immigrants were convicted of terrorism charges in the nation’s first such trial to come from a post-Sept. 11 crackdown, and legal experts say the verdicts suggest similar cases can be successfully prosecuted before civilian juries instead of military tribunals.
Two other Arab immigrants were acquitted on terrorism charges.
Defense lawyers say the split verdict Tuesday raised questions about the strength of the government’s case and anti-terrorism efforts. But the government called the convictions a victory in rooting out terrorist plots in the making.
``Today’s verdict represents an important victory in the ongoing war against terrorism,″ U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins said.
The case began six days after the Sept. 11 attacks with a raid on a Detroit apartment that turned up sketches and a videotape of what investigators said were potential targets, including Las Vegas and Disneyland.
Defense lawyers argued that the war with Iraq would prevent their clients from getting a fair trial, but jurors said they put aside feelings to focus on the evidence.
The four defendants, prosecutors alleged, worked as a sleeper cell that was part of a shadowy, unidentified Islamic terrorist group. Prosecutors said the men conspired to help terrorists by raising money, getting false documents and gathering information.
Defense attorneys said their clients were victims of overzealous federal agents who relied on the lies of an admitted con man.
``Even in my client’s conviction, there is no support for the government’s contention,″ said William Swor, an attorney for Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, the alleged cell leader. He said Elmardoudi was devastated and wept after leaving the courtroom.
Elmardoudi, 37, and Karim Koubriti, 24, were convicted of conspiracy to support terrorists. They and Ahmed Hannan, 34, also were convicted of conspiracy to engage in fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents. Hannan was acquitted of conspiracy to support terrorism.
Koubriti and Hannan were acquitted on two other fraud counts.
Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, was acquitted of all charges. He wept after the jury left the courtroom. ``I’m happy that the verdict was not guilty for me,″ Ali-Haimoud said outside the courthouse. ``I’m not a terrorist.″
Ali-Haimoud is Algerian and the others are from Morocco. Prosecutors said the plot was hatched before the men arrived in the United States in the late 1990s and 2000.
Elmardoudi could get up to 20 years in prison, Koubriti up to 10 and Hannan up to five. They likely will be deported if the convictions stand. Sentencing is expected in three to four months. Their lawyers were expected to appeal.
Experts say the government made the right decision by trying the four in front of a jury in open court instead of a military tribunal, which is still a possibility for alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
``The message that would be sent around the world is that we don’t have enough confidence in the criminal justice system to try these guys in a civilian court,″ said David Moran, an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University.
Other alleged terror cases, including those of shoe bomber Richard Reid and an alleged cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., ended with guilty pleas.
``Today’s convictions sends a clear message: The Department of Justice will work diligently to detect, disrupt and dismantle the activities of terrorist cells in the United States and abroad,″ Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a statement.
At the heart of the case was material found during the apartment raid on Sept. 17, 2001. Authorities looking for a man on a terrorist watch list found fake documents, airport badges, the videotape the government said showed possible U.S. targets, and a day planner holding what prosecutors said were sketches of an American air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan.
The prosecution’s star witness was Youssef Hmimssa, a self-described scam artist who lived briefly with some of the defendants and whose photo was on fraudulent documents found during the raid.
Hmimssa testified that Elmardoudi told him about the possibility of attacks on the United States one month before the Sept. 11 hijackings. He also described the men as extremists who wanted to support attacks and smuggle ``brothers″ into the country.
Defense attorneys suggested Hmimssa cooked up the terrorism allegations to help himself. Hmimssa, a Moroccan originally charged with fraud along with three of the defendants, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to charges in Michigan, Iowa and Illinois.
Associated Press writers Bree Fowler and Jeremy Freedenberg in Detroit contributed to this report.