FIVE YEARS LATER Conflicting Views of Justice

Hardball Tactics in an Era of Threats

Led by Muhammad Adam Alshaikh, right, a group of American Muslims pray outside the Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday, March 4, 2004. Three American Muslims accused of training for holy war against the United States by waging paintball battles in the Virginia woods were convicted Thursday of conspiring to support terrorism.
Led by Muhammad Adam Alshaikh, right, a group of American Muslims pray outside the Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday, March 4, 2004. Three American Muslims accused of training for holy war against the United States by waging paintball battles in the Virginia woods were convicted Thursday of conspiring to support terrorism. (Matthew Cavanaugh - AP)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

The crowd was so big it spilled out of the Alexandria courtroom: teachers, parents, the leader of a College Park mosque. Ali Asad Chandia, 29, a bearded man in a crisp, white shirt, sat quietly amid the throng -- a beloved third-grade teacher convicted of supporting terrorism.

"The defendant portrays himself as a mild-mannered, kind individual," federal prosecutor David Laufman told the judge at the sentencing nine days ago. But in Chandia's home and car, he said, FBI agents had found recordings glorifying terrorism, one even asking God to "grant safety to Osama bin Laden."

"That," concluded Laufman, "is who the defendant really is."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, law enforcement officials pledged an aggressive effort to choke off future plots. People identified as security threats would be charged as soon as a crime could be proven, even if it was well short of a terrorist strike. The Washington area, where seven of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers spent time before the attacks, became a focus of their investigations.

"Awaiting an attack is not an option," Paul J. McNulty, the deputy U.S. attorney general, said in a recent speech. He described the approach as "preventative prosecutions."

For prosecutors, that effort has been a success: Chandia was the 11th man convicted in what they describe as a "jihad network" in the D.C. suburbs dedicated to supporting military action on behalf of Muslims. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Muslims in the Washington area, even those unconnected to the defendants, wonder and worry about the implications of these cases for their community. Some feel that the prosecutions could increase the stigma Muslims have faced since Sept. 11. And many Muslims say the aggressive law enforcement has been far out of proportion to the offenses, which harmed no one.

Chandia's trial, for example, focused on favors he did for an acquaintance who belonged to a Pakistani group on the U.S. terrorist list. Chandia drove the visitor around the D.C. suburbs and helped him ship packages abroad.

For that, prosecutors sought 30 years to life. Some of the other defendants will spend decades in jail, including two who received life sentences.

"If this is how you deliver justice, you lose your trust in the justice system," protested Muddasar Ahmed, a Beltsville consultant who was among Chandia's supporters at his sentencing.

Ahmed and others have also argued that the prosecutions show a fundamental misunderstanding of Muslims in America: The local men wanted to help oppressed Muslims overseas, which isn't the same as backing bin Laden.

"The Muslim community . . . does not agree with Osama bin Laden at all," said Tanweer K. Ahmed, a College Park medical specialist who is not related to Muddasar Ahmed but is also among Chandia's supporters.


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