A federal judge in Alexandria yesterday acquitted the final member of an alleged "Virginia jihad network,'' saying prosecutors had shown that the Northern Virginia man was "very interested in violent jihad" but had failed to prove that he fought for the former Taliban rulers of Afghanistan.
Sabri Benkhala, 28, of Falls Church had been charged with supplying services to the Taliban and firing an AK-47 automatic rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. If convicted, he would have faced a minimum of 30 years in prison.
_____'Va. Jihad' Case_____
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After a one-day trial, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that the government had not proved the case to the legal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt.'' Only one witness said Benkhala had gone to Afghanistan, she said, and she found that witness "simply not believable.''
But as several of Benkhala's relatives burst into tears, Brinkema added that she had found Benkhala's conduct "troubling.'' Addressing a throng of his supporters, she said from the bench: "This business about violent jihad and it being part of what good Muslims view as part of their religion, I have to say it troubles this court greatly, and I hope it troubles some of you.''
The judge called on "responsible members of the Muslim as well as the non-Muslim communities to address this trend.''
Benkhala, upon hearing the verdict, said softly, "Thank God.'' Then he embraced his father.
Later, in an interview, Benkhala said: "I'm just hoping to get on with my life. I believe everything is in God's hands.''
Added his father, Anthony Benkhala: "Justice has been rendered.''
The verdict wrapped up an investigation in which the government won all but two of its cases in U.S. District Court against 11 members of the alleged network. Six of the men pleaded guilty, and three others were convicted last week after a separate trial in Brinkema's courtroom. The government accused the men of being Islamic militants who were preparing for jihad, or holy war, abroad by playing paintball and firing weapons in the Virginia countryside.
The Justice Department has hailed the convictions as an important blow against domestic-based terrorists, and U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said yesterday that he was pleased with the outcome. "This case was difficult from the start because of the secrecy and location of the conduct and the scarcity of evidence, but it was important for us to pursue,'' McNulty said in a statement. "The judge has made it clear that this entire conspiracy involved terrorism and violent jihad.''
The two trials stemmed from the indictment last June of the 11 men, all but one from the Washington suburbs, on weapons counts and charges of training with Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir. The U.S. government has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
After the six guilty pleas, Brinkema last week convicted three men -- Masoud Khan, 32, Seifullah Chapman, 31, and Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 35 -- on a variety of conspiracy and weapons charges. She had earlier dismissed the case against a fourth defendant, Caliph Basha Ibn Abdur-Raheem, saying prosecutors failed to present evidence he was involved in the conspiracy.
The men had waived their right to a jury trial because they believed a Northern Virginia jury could not fairly evaluate Muslim men accused of terrorism-related crimes. Benkhala did the same, and his case was tried separately because the crimes of which he was accused allegedly took place in 1999. The overall conspiracy started in 2000, prosecutors have said.
Prosecutors said in closing arguments yesterday that Benkhala had gone to Afghanistan and fought briefly for the Taliban in the summer of 1999, after President Bill Clinton signed an executive order making it a crime to do so. But Benkhala's attorney, John Keats, said his client was merely a student with an intellectual interest in Islam. "There is absolutely no evidence that the crime ever happened,'' he said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.