By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006
The government's prosecution of the "Virginia jihad network" has produced more guilty verdicts than any domestic terrorism case since Sept. 11 and symbolizes a new direction in the legal war on terrorism, government officials and experts said yesterday.
Some Muslims and lawyers have derided the probe that ended this week as the "paintball case," saying it targeted Muslim men who had done nothing more than innocuously play paintball in the woods and who never intended attacks inside the United States.
But prosecutors say that misses the point. With the breakup of an alleged terrorist plot in Canada this week heightening concerns about homegrown terrorists, federal officials point to the Virginia case as a prime example of their post-Sept. 11 mandate to focus on preventing attacks.
"Terrorism comes in many forms," said Chuck Rosenberg, the chief federal prosecutor in Alexandria. "The most painfully obvious is Sept. 11, but there are folks willing to take up arms against U.S. interests here and abroad, including against our allies, who are also terrorists."
There are more such cases to come -- cases that will lack a high-profile ringleader like Osama bin Laden but will target people who trained at terrorist camps, raised money or associated with radical groups, law enforcement officials and legal experts said.
"We're arresting people for talking about things, thinking about things, training for things," said Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor in Alexandria. "I think you will see more of it as the government moves from a traditional criminal law model of post-event reaction to pre-event interdiction. But that's where the civil liberties rubber meets the road."
The Virginia case has concerned civil libertarians and some Washington area Muslims since it began in June 2003. Eleven Muslim men were charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with training with and fighting for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group fighting the Indian government that the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
Six of the men eventually pleaded guilty, three were convicted at trial and two were acquitted. The group's spiritual leader, Ali al-Timimi, was convicted last year on charges that included soliciting others to levy war against the United States and contributing services to Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers. He was sentenced to life in prison.
On Tuesday, the final man charged in the investigation, Ali Asad Chandia, was convicted on three counts of providing material support to Lashkar or conspiring to do so and acquitted on a fourth. He faces up to 45 years in prison. Prosecutors said Chandia trained at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan and worked with others to help the group acquire equipment with possible military applications.
A juror, Robert Stosch, said yesterday that most panel members did not believe Chandia attended the camp but convicted him primarily because he had helped another defendant ship 50,000 paintballs for use by Lashkar.
But Stosch added that he thought the case "shouldn't have been brought at all. It was very insignificant." And he said the whole investigation was "way too minor, regardless of whether they convicted 11 people."
The attorney for Seifullah Chapman, who is serving a 65-year prison term for his role in the jihad network, said he thought the case has made Americans less safe because it alienated Muslims who might otherwise cooperate with law enforcement.
"There is no way this would have been prosecuted if these young men weren't Muslims," said the attorney, John K. Zwerling.
Rosenberg, while saying he could not comment on the Chandia case, said the notion of anti-Muslim bias was "odious. . . . We do not prosecute people because they are Muslims or Catholics or Jews. We prosecute them because they have committed criminal acts that warrant prosecution."
Prosecutors presented no evidence that any of the 11 convicted men had planned U.S. attacks. But several admitted in court that they had intended to use their training to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and one, Muhammed Aatique, said at his guilty plea hearing in 2003: "The United States could have been one of the possible opponents if the conspiracy had gone ahead."
Law enforcement officials said yesterday that prevention played a significant role in the decision to prosecute the case. That emphasis would continue in the post-Sept. 11 climate, they said.
"You had a cadre of people who had gone overseas and obtained training from violent jihadist groups whose primary ideology is hatred of the United States," said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
"They were walking around the national capital area with training in small arms, infantry tactics, any number of skills that could be used to mount a strike," the official said. "It has to be unacceptable to wait until there is a threat of actual direct violence to take action."