An Islamic spiritual leader was indicted yesterday on charges that his preaching inspired a group of Northern Virginia men to train for violent jihad overseas and prepare for war against the United States.
Ali Al-Timimi, 40, is charged with inciting members of an alleged "Virginia jihad network" to travel to terrorist training camps in Pakistan and battle U.S. troops seeking to oust Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers. The Fairfax County resident was for several years a frequent and popular lecturer at the Center for Islamic Information and Education, also known as Dar Al-Arqam, in Falls Church.
Prosecutors hailed the indictment yesterday as a major victory in the global war on terrorism, but Timimi's attorney and some Muslim leaders derided it, saying it holds Timimi accountable for his words rather than any actions in support of terrorism.
"This is mean-spirited, and it's all about free speech and the First Amendment,'' said Timimi's attorney, Martin F. McMahon.
The indictment, handed up yesterday by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, charges that five days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Timimi told his followers at a meeting in Fairfax that "the time had come" for them to join the violent jihad in Afghanistan and that U.S. troops were legitimate targets. He also celebrated the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in a message to his followers that referred to "the destruction of the Jews" and said "Western supremacy (especially that of America) . . . is coming to a quick end," the indictment said.
The indictment is an outgrowth of an unusual investigation last year in which 11 Muslim men, all but one from the Washington area, were charged with taking part in paramilitary training -- including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside -- to prepare for holy war abroad. Timimi was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in that case, in which nine of the men were convicted. If convicted, Timimi faces up to life in prison.
Many of the allegations against Timimi were contained in the original indictment, which referred to him as co-conspirator No. 1. He is only now being charged because other defendants in the case have cooperated, law enforcement sources said. The investigation is continuing.
Shaker El Sayed, secretary general of the Muslim American Society and an acquaintance of Timimi's, said the main issues raised by the indictment are "the issue of the First Amendment and the issue of guilt by association." He said he hoped that the judge in the case "understands well . . . the difference between committing an act of violence and expressing one's opinion about political issues."
McMahon said Timimi, who was five weeks from receiving his doctorate in cancer gene research at George Mason University, has been meeting with government agents regularly for more than a year and had asked that the indictment be held off until he received his degree.
McMahon attributed the charges to election-year politics and said the Bush administration "has to convince people that they are winning the war on terrorism.''
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Timimi counseled young men to bear arms against the United States "while bodies were still being pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. . . . Today's charges are a major step forward in holding this leader accountable for his dangerous actions against America."
Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, said that if the charges are true, "Muslims should be the first ones to say, 'Get him out of our community.' "
He called Timimi's alleged actions "treasonous" and "an example of the negative rhetoric that some Muslims are hearing from some of their so-called leaders. . . . There's a point where First Amendment speech turns into a conspiracy."
Timimi is scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 1 on charges of conspiracy and attempting to contribute services to the Taliban and on firearms and explosives counts. The indictment does not accuse Timimi of firing weapons but alleges that he incited others who illegally fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at a terrorist training camp.
Timimi was not in custody yesterday, and his attorney said Timimi expects to surrender to government agents in the coming days.
In written responses to e-mailed questions last year, Timimi said that as a Muslim, "I will have opinions that go counter to the mainstream of American society" but that he did not advocate violence.
"I was born and raised in this country," wrote Timimi, a U.S. citizen. "This, I believe, is one of God's greatest blessings he has given me. Moreover, many of my best qualities are simply because I am an American."
The other defendants in the case were indicted in June 2003 on weapons counts and charges of training with Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir. The U.S. government has labeled the group a terrorist organization. Two defendants also were charged with conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban.
Six pleaded guilty, and three went to trial and were convicted. Two were acquitted. Those convicted received sentences as long as life in prison for one and 85 years for another.
Staff writers David Cho and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.