Ali al-Timimi is a native Washingtonian, a prolific reader with about 4,000 books in his personal library who grew up among Irish Catholics. His parents worked at the Iraqi Embassy and sent him to a Jewish school known for strong academics.
He had little Islamic education until he parents moved to Saudi Arabia when he was 15. Inspired by a teacher there, he began a lifelong study of Islam. He returned to Washington when he was 17 to attend college, receiving degrees from George Washington University and the University of Maryland, and late last year, a doctorate from George Mason University in computational biology with a focus on cancer and genes.
Yesterday, after he was found guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on charges that he encouraged followers to join the Taliban and fight U.S. troops, members of the Muslim community said Timimi was a victim of "overzealous prosecution."
"Ali never opened a weapon or fired a shot," said Shaker El Sayed, a member of the executive committee of the Dar Al Hijra mosque in Falls Church, "and he is going to get life imprisonment for talking. What kind of country are we turning the United States into today?"
Sayed said that the jury must not have been able to distinguish between the lectures Ali delivered and charges against him. "The government alleged Ali incited people to buy arms and take them overseas to fire against people, but they never presented anything at the trial to show any facts relevant to any evidence. They only relied on Ali's lectures."
Timimi was a frequent lecturer at the Center for Islamic Information and Education, also known as Dar Al-Arqam, in Falls Church. He recorded more than 500 hours of his lectures and seminars, according to the biography of him posted on a Web site founded by his supporters.
Timimi was a founding member of Dar al-Arqam and one of the center's primary lecturers during 2000 and 2001. He would frequently meet informally after his Friday night lectures with young men interested in his views on Islam and world affairs. Some of them were convicted of training for jihad overseas and at paintball games in the Virginia countryside.
During his followers' trial last year in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, some of his former students who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution, painted a picture of Timimi as a fervent follower of Islam who believed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were justified.
Khwaja Hasan testified that in a meeting five days after the attacks, Timimi ordered the window blinds drawn and the house phone turned off in the event that it was being used by the government as a listening device. Hasan said Timimi urged the men at the meeting to join the Taliban and fight the United States.
Hasan said he decided to travel to Pakistan to seek military training and before he left, he arranged to meet Timimi at a kebab restaurant in Fairfax. He testified that Timimi gave him and a colleague tips about traveling.
"He told us that to carry a magazine to keep a distance between each other and if the federal agents, if they do catch us at the airport, to cry like a baby."
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, said that Timimi's conviction "bodes ill" for the First Amendment.
"What he said was perhaps repugnant and inflammatory, but was it really his intent to have people go and take his words and translate that into going and killing other human beings, specifically Americans?" Bray asked. "If that was the case, then the jury evidently felt like he was shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded building." He said that the bar for what constitutes free speech has shifted since the Sept. 11 attacks and that Timimi might have been a victim of that change.
In October, according to his supporters' Web site, Timimi told friends of a conversation he had with his elderly and nearly blind father about whether to accept a plea bargain in the case.
"Son," he said his father told him, "I prefer to see you die in prison and that you are keeping to your principles and to what you believe in than for you to sell your soul."