By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
A federal jury yesterday convicted the last man charged as a member of the "Virginia jihad network," deciding that Ali Asad Chandia aided a terrorist group that is fighting the government of India.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria found Chandia, 29, guilty of three counts of providing material support to Lashkar-i-Taiba or conspiring to do so. Although jurors acquitted him of a fourth count of supporting terrorists, the College Park man faces up to 45 years in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 18.
Prosecutors said Chandia trained at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan and helped the group acquire paintballs and other equipment with potential military applications when he returned to the United States. Lashkar, which is battling to end Indian control over much of Kashmir, is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
The verdict brings to 11 the number of Muslim men convicted in the investigation of what prosecutors called a network dedicated to preparing for holy war against U.S. troops. Their training included playing paintball in the Virginia countryside, and a number of the defendants attended Lashkar camps overseas. Prosecutors said Chandia is a former personal assistant to Ali al-Timimi, the group's spiritual leader, who is serving a life prison term.
Federal officials have long described the case as one of the most important domestic terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Yesterday, they hailed Chandia's conviction and said it underscored the importance of cooperating with foreign law enforcement agencies in the battle against terrorism.
"This case demonstrates our relentless commitment to bringing to justice those who provide support to terrorist organizations," said U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg.
The local Muslim community has criticized the investigation as overzealous and the prison terms of those convicted as excessive. Muslims flocked to the courthouse to show support for Chandia, a third-grade teacher at a Muslim school in Maryland. About 100 supporters attended closing arguments Monday.
"We see today's verdict as a tragedy,'' said Lynn Eppard, a spokeswoman for the Ali Asad Support Committee, a group that raised money for Chandia's defense and posted summaries of trial testimony on the Internet. "These are troubling times not just for Muslims but for the entire country. . . . Millions of dollars are being spent under the guise of protecting us all, in this instance from a third-grade school teacher who was never proven to have had ill feelings or taken any action against any U.S. citizen."
Chandia, his hands clasped behind him, showed no reaction as the verdict of the nine-woman, three-man jury was read. He then smiled and shook hands with supporters in the courtroom. The Pakistani citizen remains free on a personal recognizance bond.
In a brief interview, Chandia said that he disagreed with the verdict and that "in the 12 years I've spent in Maryland, not a single person got hurt either by my words or my myself in person."
His attorney, Marvin Miller, said that the charges were overzealous and that prosecutors had "made a calculated appeal to emotion" and had "misrepresented the Islamic religion."
Rosenberg responded that the government "presented a straightforward and compelling case, and the jury based its verdict on the facts, nothing more, nothing less.''
During the two-week trial, prosecutors introduced evidence showing that Chandia traveled to a Lashkar office in Lahore, Pakistan, in November 2001 shortly after resigning from his job at a Costco store. Prosecutors told the jury that Chandia then trained at a Lashkar camp, though they acknowledged they had no eyewitnesses placing him there. After returning to the United States, Chandia was accused of working with other defendants to obtain equipment for Lashkar.
It remains unclear whether any of the equipment was used by Lashkar, and there was no indication that any of it was intended for use in the United States.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman told the jury in closing arguments, "Let your voices be heard in our nation's struggle to confront the dangers of Islamic extremism."
The defense case included testimony from several of Chandia's family members, including his brother, who said Chandia was in Pakistan to attend the brother's wedding and to help his ailing father.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.