Islamic spiritual leader Ali Al-Timimi's pen is mightier than his sword, prosecutors contend. It's not so much his actions but his words that make him so dangerous, they say.
Less than a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Timimi told a group of Northern Virginia Muslims that it should train for violent jihad abroad and wage war on the United States, prosecutors say. In 2003, he celebrated the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in a message that prosecutors say reflected his view that the United States itself should be destroyed.
The government says the statements of Timimi -- who goes on trial today in U.S. District Court in Alexandria -- constitute nothing short of treason. But some Muslims, who are rallying to Timimi's side through a Web site and other expressions of support, see a respected religious leader being prosecuted for his words.
"He is not accused of anything except talking. It's all about him saying something," said Shaker Elsayed, a member of the executive committee of Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. "If this isn't a First Amendment issue, I don't know what is."
Although legal experts are as divided on the case as the two sides are, some said that the case reflects the power of words in the post-Sept. 11 climate -- and that it poses an important test of the free-speech rights Americans have come to expect since the First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1791.
"This is a troubling case with very significant First Amendment concerns," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor with experience in national security cases.
If Timimi "encouraged people to go kill Americans, it comes very close to the criminal line, if not passing over it," Turley said. But historically, he said, "Courts have been uneasy with a criminal allegation based solely on words alone."
Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer who created the Justice Department's terrorism unit during the Reagan administration, said Timimi's words could send him to prison.
"If he said, 'I want you to go join the movement in Afghanistan and here is where you get the training,' that's no different from saying, 'Go join a murder club,' " Toensing said.
Whether Timimi will go to prison probably will depend on whether he expected his listeners to act on what he told them, legal experts said. Although free-speech rights have been interpreted differently in different eras, the current standard derives from the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Brandenburg v. Ohio, they said.
That opinion says the government cannot forbid "advocacy of the use of force" unless that advocacy is intended or likely to produce "imminent lawless action.''
"The key," said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, "is whether Timimi's speech was likely to cause others to act and whether he intended it to cause them to act.''
Timimi is charged with 10 counts, which include attempting to contribute services to the Taliban and soliciting or inducing others to commit a variety of crimes, such as conspiring to levy war on the United States, using firearms and carrying explosives. One charge involving war is drawn from a section of federal law headed "treason.''
If convicted on all counts, Timimi, 41, of Fairfax County, would face up to life in prison. Jury selection began last Monday, and opening statements are scheduled for today. The trial, before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, is expected to last as long as three weeks.