Seven members of an alleged "Virginia jihad network" were charged in a new indictment yesterday with conspiring to support terrorist organizations -- and two of them are accused of planning to go to Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops battling al Qaeda.
The upgraded charges represent a major escalation of the government's case against the men, who first were charged in June with weapons counts and with violating a nearly century-old law that bars U.S. citizens and residents from attacking countries with which the United States is at peace. Four other men have pleaded guilty to the original charges.
Now, two of the men -- Randall Todd Royer, 30, of the District and Masoud Ahmad Khan, 31, of Gaithersburg -- face allegations that they conspired to provide material support to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and to his Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. A third, Sabri Benkhala, 28, of Falls Church, is accused of supplying services to the Taliban, while three others face upgraded charges of conspiring to support Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group fighting India for control of the Kashmir region that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
"We will vigorously prosecute anyone who plans to fight against Americans and to provide support to our terrorist enemies," Assistant Attorney General Christopher A. Wray said in a statement released by Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria who is leading the investigation.
The new indictment repeats allegations that a number of the men attended Lashkar training camps in Pakistan and further trained in military tactics during paintball games in Northern Virginia -- training the government now contends was to prepare them to fight U.S. troops.
Yesterday's charges, returned by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, renewed a debate over whether the men are devout Muslims unjustly accused, as defense lawyers contend, or the potentially violent jihadists portrayed by the government.
Federal officials have called the case a key step in the war on terrorism. But defense advocates dismissed the new charges and said there was little information in the indictment that specifically tied the defendants to al Qaeda or the Taliban.
"It's unfortunate the government is resorting to these tactics to get my husband to plead guilty for something he didn't do," said Royer's wife, Mirsada. "His family and his community stand by him. We pray to God he'll get a jury that sees through the government's lies."
Danny C. Onorato, an attorney for Khan, said his client "would never in his wildest dreams contemplate ever harming his fellow Americans. We are troubled by these allegations."
The new charges say a fatwa, or religious edict, from bin Laden was found in Khan's Gaithersburg home in May. Referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fatwa said: "So here is America, Allah has struck it in one of its vital points, so He destroyed her greatest of buildings," according to the indictment.
Onorato said Khan "knows nothing about that document being in the house."
Benkhala's lawyer, John A. Keats, said his client denies the charge of aiding the Taliban.
In their statement, prosecutors said the men were told at a meeting just after the Sept. 11 attacks to go to Afghanistan to fight the U.S. troops that were soon to arrive.
Because the Taliban was refusing U.S. demands to turn over bin Laden, the statement said, the men were supporting al Qaeda.
Federal officials said the men are only accused of a conspiracy, not actually fighting U.S. troops. Victoria Toensing, a former top Justice Department counterterrorism official, said that point will be crucial if the case goes to trial.
"They don't have to have gotten there," she said. "They just have to agree they were going to go there, and taken steps. . . . If they agreed to go over and fight Americans, that's an illegal agreement."
Authorities previously have identified the person accused of urging the men to go to Afghanistan as Ali al-Timimi of Fairfax County, a U.S. citizen and prominent Islamic preacher. Attorneys for Timimi have said that he expects to be indicted, and people familiar with the case said yesterday that Timimi remains under active investigation.
Nine of the 11 men originally charged in an indictment unsealed June 27 are U.S. citizens. Three -- Yong Ki Kwon, 27, of Fairfax County, Khwaja Mahmood Hasan, 27, also of Fairfax, and Donald T. Surratt, 30, of Suitland -- pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy and gun charges.
A fourth man, Muhammed Aatique, 30, of Norristown, Pa., pleaded guilty Monday and told a federal judge that he and his co-conspirators might have taken up arms against the United States if they had not been arrested. All four men are cooperating in the investigation.
The seven men charged in yesterday's 32-count indictment are scheduled to be arraigned Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
They all pleaded not guilty to the earlier charges.