A Muslim convert admitted in federal court in Seattle yesterday that he conspired to aid the deposed Taliban government in Afghanistan, part of a deal with prosecutors that could lead to criminal charges against a radical London cleric linked to al Qaeda.
James Ujaama, 36, who was charged last August with attempting to set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon, said as part of a plea agreement that he sought to provide "jihad fighters, currency, computers, software, computer disks and other items" to the Taliban, the Afghan rulers who sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and were crushed by U.S. forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Ujaama, a well-known African American activist in Seattle whose case had become a local cause celebre, also agreed to continue cooperating with prosecutors and U.S. intelligence officials by providing information and offering testimony about suspected terrorists. In return, prosecutors agreed to recommend a prison sentence of two years.
U.S. officials say Ujaama will be crucial to building a U.S. criminal case against London cleric Abu Hamza Masri, who has praised bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks and is suspected by U.S. officials of being a key terrorist recruiter in Britain and Europe. Masri, whose Finsbury Park mosque has been the target of British anti-terror raids, is the focus of an ongoing federal grand jury probe in Seattle, law enforcement sources have said.
Ujaama lived in London after converting to Islam in the 1990s and became close to Masri, who allegedly authored a letter of introduction for Ujaama before his trip to Afghanistan. The relatively lenient terms of Ujaama's plea agreement indicate the potential importance of his testimony, several U.S. officials said.
"An important part of our war against terrorism is to obtain the cooperation of insiders who have direct knowledge of the activities of dangerous terrorists," Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in a statement, which did not mention Masri or any other suspects by name. "We expect his cooperation to lead to the arrest of additional terrorists and the disruption of future terrorist activity."
One of Ujaama's attorneys, Peter Offenbecher of Seattle, called the agreement "a favorable outcome for both the government and Mr. Ujaama." In addition to a recommended two-year sentence, the deal will also rescind severe restrictions on Ujaama's contact with the outside world.
"He's acknowledged his personal responsibility for the facts that are stated in the plea agreement," Offenbecher said. "He stepped up to the plate and said, 'I did these things and I regret them.' "
The deal with Ujaama is the latest in a series of plea agreements that the government has secured in major terrorism cases, including a plea last week from a fourth suspect in Lackawanna, N.Y., who admitted meeting bin Laden and being a member of an al Qaeda "sleeper cell." Ujaama was first arrested as a material witness last July, and then indicted by a grand jury on a federal firearms charge and for allegedly providing material support to terrorists in connnection with his alleged efforts to start a "global violent jihad" training camp near Bly, Ore., in 1999. Masri was one of several unidentified co-conspirators in that indictment, sources have said.
Federal prosecutors later alleged in court that Ujaama had also attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and delivered computers to the Taliban. Ujaama's attorneys said at the time that he was merely dropping off laptops at an Afghan girls' school.
According to yesterday's plea documents, Ujaama traveled to Pakistan in late 2000 to help an unidentified conspirator travel to jihad training camps in Afghanistan. Ujaama also delivered currency, computer software and other items to the Taliban in 2000 and 2001, and helped operate a Web site that solicited support for the Afghan leadership, documents show.
Ujaama initially drew support from a wide range of community leaders in Seattle, where he had been known as a community activist and small-time entrepreneur who was honored with a day of recognition by one state legislator.
Ujaama's apparent transformation into an Islamic radical began in 1997, when he moved to London and became close to Masri, federal officials said. A videotape prosecutors obtained last fall, for example, shows Ujaama discussing jihad with Masri and saying that "Jews and Christians are our enemies."
The Finsbury Park mosque is known to British and U.S. authorities as a hotbed of radical activity, with followers that have included convicted al Qaeda shoe-bomber Richard C. Reid and alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. On a trip back to the United States in 1999, Ujaama sent a fax to Masri saying he had identified a remote Oregon ranch that would be suitable to "store and conceal guns, bunkers and ammunition," according to the indictment and investigators.
Masri is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges related to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, while U.S. officials, who say they are frustrated by the lack of action by British authorities, have been working to build their own criminal case against him.