He's a terrorist using his "rock star" status to incite his devoted followers to wage war against the United States.
He's a peaceful Islamic scholar simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
The clashing portraits of Ali Timimi were on display yesterday in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, where the spiritual leader is being tried on charges that he encouraged a group of Northern Virginia Muslim men to train in terrorist camps in Pakistan and fight U.S. troops seeking to oust Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.
"He had lectured around the world. He was like a rock star,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said of Timimi, 41, of Fairfax County. "The young men he spoke to, a lot of them held him in awe. They did their best to do what he told them to do.''
Defense attorneys acknowledged that some of Timimi's statements constituted "very obscene and offensive speech,'' including Timimi's reported celebration of the 2003 crash of the space shuttle Columbia and statement that America is the greatest enemy of Islam.
"Some of it, frankly, rises to the level of hate speech,'' defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr. told the 12-member jury. "Remember, he has a First Amendment right to have these opinions. You don't have to agree with him to realize he has a right to free speech. Ladies and gentlemen,'' MacMahon added, "that's the truth. Muslims around the world believe the United States is their greatest enemy.''
Whether Timimi is a terrorist whose words pose a danger or a religious leader exercising his First Amendment rights is one of the central questions of the case. Timimi is charged with 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.
If convicted on all counts, Timimi faces up to life in prison. The trial, before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, is expected to last as long as three weeks.
Timimi's trial is an outgrowth of a federal investigation in which 11 Muslim men, all but one from the Washington area, were charged with participating in paramilitary training -- including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside -- to prepare for jihad, or "holy war,'' abroad. Nine of those men were convicted in 2003 and last year.
Prosecutors said Timimi was the spiritual leader of the group when he was the primary lecturer, in 2000 and 2001, at the Center for Islamic Information and Education, also known as Dar al-Arqam, in Falls Church.
Prosecutors told the jury that days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Timimi attended a meeting in Fairfax with some of the men who were later convicted. With the curtains drawn and the phones unplugged, Timimi told the men that "the time had come" for them to go abroad and support Afghanistan's Taliban rulers against the impending U.S.-led invasion.
"He said it was time to go fight,'' Kromberg said.
MacMahon cast that meeting, on Sept. 16, 2001, in a different light. He said that those in attendance were concerned about anti-Muslim violence in the wake of Sept. 11 and that Timimi told the men "that if they didn't feel safe in this country, they should leave.''
A witness who was at the Sept. 16 meeting supported elements of both versions. Muhammed Aatique testified that Timimi encouraged his listeners to leave the United States and move to Muslim countries.