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Hardball Tactics in an Era of Threats

The Impetus to Fight

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)

Five days after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, Royer and several other young Muslims met Timimi at the Fairfax home of a Dar al-Arqam regular, 25-year-old Yong Ki Kwon, and anxiously asked the lecturer's opinion of the attacks.

Timimi urged the men to keep their conversation secret. He suggested that a global war between Muslims and non-Muslims was beginning, according to later testimony. He urged the men to "go be with the mujaheddin anywhere in the world," as Royer would recall. According to three men at the dinner, Timimi urged them to defend the Taliban against an imminent U.S. attack; Timimi and two others denied that.

Four of the men promptly set out for a Lashkar camp, using Royer's contacts. The men were hoping to get weapons training, Kwon later testified, to defend their "brothers and sisters in Afghanistan."

The young men who once dreamed of bravely fighting distant enemies now had widened their idea of jihad: Some were prepared to fight U.S. soldiers, according to court testimony.

But their plans soon fell apart. With the Taliban crumbling, Timimi's followers gave up after a few weeks and left the Pakistani camp. On their way out, two said, they saw Chandia at a Lashkar office.

Agents Take No Chances

In late 2002, the FBI's Washington field office received two similar tips from local Muslims: Timimi was running "an Islamic group known as the Dar al-Arqam" that had "conducted military-style training," FBI special agent John Wyman would later write in an affidavit.

Wyman and another agent, Wade Ammerman, pounced on the tips. Searching the Internet, they found a speech by Timimi celebrating the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, according to the affidavit. The agents also found that Timimi was in contact with Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, a Saudi whose anti-Western speeches in the early 1990s had helped inspire bin Laden.

The agents reached an alarming conclusion: "Timimi is an Islamist supporter of Bin Laden" who was leading a group "training for jihad," the agent wrote in the affidavit. The FBI even came to speculate that Timimi, a doctoral candidate pursuing cancer gene research, might have been involved in the anthrax attacks.

On a frigid day in February 2003, the FBI searched Timimi's brick townhouse on Meadow Field Court, a cul-de-sac near Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax. Among the items they were seeking, according to court testimony: material on weapons of mass destruction.

There was, in the end, nothing related to that in the house. And yet, as the investigation proceeded, officials learned that some of Timimi's followers had indeed been practicing for possible armed jihad during their paintball games.

Of greater interest to prosecutors were the men's trips to the Lashkar camp. Searches of their homes turned up semiautomatic rifles and radical literature from the Internet, including "The Terrorists' Handbook." And agents would make a chilling discovery in Chandia's house: audiotapes praising bin Laden. On the front seat of Chandia's Dodge Neon, FBI agents found a CD showing the planes smashing into the World Trade Center. Voices in the background chanted "Allahu Akbar" -- God is great.

McNulty acknowledged that simply attending a guerrilla camp "may not have been seen as threatening or as significant prior" to Sept. 11. But after the al-Qaeda attacks, authorities were taking no chances.

Prosecutors hit the men with a barrage of charges. They accused them of violating the Neutrality Act, a decades-old, seldom-enforced law that bans Americans from fighting a nation at peace with the United States -- such as India, the main target of Lashkar's guerrillas. And prosecutors stacked multiple gun charges carrying "mandatory minimum" sentences, based on the few times the men fired weapons at a Lashkar camp.

The hardball tactics worked. Three of the men accused of going to the Lashkar camp after Sept. 11 pleaded guilty and testified against their friends. They served about three years and are now free.

In contrast, Masaud Khan of Gaithersburg, who traveled with them, pleaded not guilty and was convicted. On Friday, a federal appeals court upheld his sentence: life plus 45 years.

Looking for Links to Lashkar

At the federal courthouse in Alexandria this summer, witnesses recounted the latest act of the jihad network story.

Prosecutors accused Chandia of attending the Lashkar camp in fall 2001, at Timimi's urging. Chandia's attorney and other witnesses said he simply flew to Pakistan in November 2001 to organize his brother's wedding.

Chandia's real trouble began three months later, after he had returned home. At a friend's request, he went to Reagan National Airport to pick up Mohammed Ajmal Khan, a Lashkar official. By then, the group was on the U.S. terrorist list.

Over the next year, two of the local men who had trained at the Lashkar camp helped Khan place orders with U.S. companies for 50,000 paintballs -- which are sometimes used in military training -- as well as equipment for a small, remote-controlled glider, according to court testimony.

Chandia's role was apparently smaller. Prosecutors said he allowed the Lashkar official to use his computer. And when Khan visited again in March 2003, Chandia helped him take 21 boxes of Pakistani-bound goods, including the paintballs, to a shipping company in Sterling, according to testimony. Chandia paid the shipping bill -- $761.84, according to testimony.

To the teacher's supporters at the trial, his acts seemed far short of terrorism.

"He mailed something," said Muddasar Ahmed's wife, Keryn, a homemaker whose sons were in Chandia's class. "So what?"

But the U.S. government has grown increasingly concerned about Lashkar, which it designated a terror group in December 2001. Although the group is not known to target Americans, Abu Zubaida, an al-Qaeda official, was seized at a Lashkar safe house in March 2002, raising questions about their ties.

"I'm conceding that it's small types of support" the men provided, McNulty said in the interview. "But a relationship [was] established . . . and that could become more significant in the future."

Legal experts say there is nothing new in charging suspects to head off an attack. In 1995, for example, a federal jury convicted 10 people, including Omar Abdel Rahman -- the "blind sheikh" -- of planning a terrorism rampage in New York. But in that case, the FBI taped the men's conversations about bomb plots and caught several mixing chemicals.

"The paradigm has shifted," said Wayne McCormack, a professor at the University of Utah and author of a textbook on anti-terrorism law. The Justice Department, he said, is "moving much earlier than what would have been true before."

In doing so, he added, the government risks "prosecuting people who, left to their own devices, would never do anything."

In the Chandia case, prosecutors tried to demonstrate his extremism by presenting the material seized in his home and car. Chandia's friends testified that some of the items were for academic research on radical Islam.

"And he is not on trial for what he believes," defense attorney Marvin Miller told the jury. "He is on trial for you to decide whether or not he did anything."

The jury found Chandia guilty of three counts of conspiracy and providing material support to Lashkar. He was acquitted of a charge that he attended a training camp.

Yet even one of the jurors who convicted him said Chandia hardly seemed a security risk. The case "shouldn't have been brought at all," Robert Stosch told The Washington Post.

Anger Among Muslims Simmers

Today, the group of ardent salafis who once gathered in Falls Church has dispersed. Dar al-Arqam has closed. Timimi was sentenced to life in prison for urging the men to help the Taliban. One of the local men who ordered equipment for Lashkar got 65 years. Royer, who pleaded guilty to weapons charges, received 20.

The Justice Department has described the jihad network case as one of a string of successes in the war on terrorism. But officials say the threat persists.

"As we approach the fifth anniversary of September 11. . . terrorists and their supporters are growing more sophisticated," McNulty said in his recent speech, noting that the groups are using the Internet to recruit and raise money.

At some local mosques, the trials have left a legacy of distrust of the justice system. Dar al-Hijrah is financially assisting the families of some of those convicted. To raise money for the defendants, a worshiper printed T-shirts with the slogan "Free Our Unjustly Detained Brothers -- Political Pawns in the War on Terror."

Members of Dar-us-Salaam, the mosque connected with the school where Chandia teaches, helped organize a fundraiser and Web site for him.

Authorities "are trying to send a message to every Muslim" with the long imprisonments, said Keryn Ahmed. "But they're just making us mad."

The government has strenuously denied targeting Muslims based on their faith. But prosecutors agree that they are trying to send a message -- of zero tolerance for terrorism-related activities.

In the end, officials acknowledge that they will never know how dangerous the local men were.

"Did we break something up? Yeah, we think we did," said a law enforcement official involved in the case, speaking on condition of anonymity under Justice Department rules. "But we would not profess to say we had anything more than the potential for it."

Tomorrow: Two young Muslims follow different paths

after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Staff writers Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer and news researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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