A federal judge yesterday convicted three members of an alleged "Virginia jihad network," a major victory for prosecutors who had portrayed the men as Islamic militants preparing for foreign jihad, or holy war, by playing paintball and firing weapons in the Virginia countryside.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema found the three men guilty of conspiring to aid a Muslim group fighting India that the government has deemed a terrorist organization. With her decision, handed down in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, nine of the 11 Muslim men initially charged with taking part in paramilitary training have admitted guilt or been convicted. One was previously acquitted and another faces trial next week.
Among a handful of charges rejected yesterday was one against defendant Masoud Khan, 32, accusing him of conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda. That charge has been successfully used by the Justice Department in several other terrorism-related casessince the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Khan, of Gaithersburg, was convicted of conspiring to aid Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.
The convictions were hailed by the Justice Department as an important blow against terrorists based in the United States. The defendants, most of them U.S. citizens, were not accused of planning attacks in this country. But prosecutors alleged that they bought weapons, played paintball in the woods and, in several cases, trained with guerrillas in Pakistan with the idea of eventually helping the Taliban and terrorist groups abroad.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in a statement that the investigation had produced the largest number of terrorist-related convictions of any single case since the 2001 terrorist attacks, and he said the case benefited from information-sharing authorized by the controversial Patriot Act.
Most of the men were charged with participating in a conspiracy that involved their support for Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant group fighting to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir. Defense attorneys said they would consider filing appeals after studying Brinkema's 75-page decision.
Defense attorneys waived the right to a jury trial so that Brinkema could decide the case. They argued that a Northern Virginia jury could not fairly evaluate Muslims accused of terrorism-related crimes.
The lawyers had presented their clients as harmless young men who played paintball for fun and were targeted because of their Muslim faith.
Because the three defendants also were convicted of weapons charges, they face the likelihood of lengthy prison terms when they are sentenced in June.
Bernard Grimm, Khan's attorney, protested that his client faces a sentence "in excess of 100 years, and he's never gotten a parking ticket." Khan faces the stiffest sentence of those found guilty so far. He is the only member of the group convicted of conspiracy to wage war against the United States and to assist Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.
Another defendant, Seifullah Chapman, 31, of Alexandria, faces a sentence of up to 60 years, said his attorney, John Zwerling. Chapman was convicted of conspiring to support Lashkar-i-Taiba and of using arms in connection with a crime of violence.
The third man convicted yesterday, Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 35, of Falls Church, was found guilty of charges involving weapons and support for Lashkar-i-Taiba. Unlike the other two, he did not attend a training camp for the anti-India group in Pakistan, but he was accused of helping train his friends at home. His attorney, William Cummings, said he had not calculated Abdur-Raheem's possible sentence.
In brief comments from the bench, Brinkema said she did not believe Chapman and Abdur-Raheem when they testified that they were unaware of Lashkar-i-Taiba's violent acts and anti-American nature. Their testimony amounted to "deliberate ignorance" of what was going on with the armed group, Brinkema said. Khan did not take the stand in the case.
The judge noted that other defendants, who pleaded guilty and took the stand for the government, had realized that their activities might be illegal. In fact, two men -- Yong Ki Kwon, 28, and Khwaja Mahmood Hasan, both of Fairfax County -- testified that they had trained at a Lashkar-i-Taiba camp with the goal of fighting for the Taliban against the U.S. military. Khan attended the camp with those men.
Others involved in the case denied having any such aim. Seven of the defendants in the case allegedly spent brief periods at a Lashkar-i-Taiba training camp between June 2000 and fall 2001. Lashkar was placed on the U.S. terrorist list in December 2001.
The four defendants who have been sentenced have received prison terms of from almost four years to 111/2 years. Their sentences could be reduced because of their cooperation with the government.
Brinkema read out the verdicts yesterday to a courtroom filled with bearded Muslim men and women in robes, supporters of the men on trial. The defendants showed little reaction on hearing the sentences. But outside the courtroom, several veiled women, friends and relatives of the men, wept.
Muslim activists said they saw the verdict as a sign that Muslims were being unfairly singled out. Shakar al-Saeed of the Muslim American Society said there was a "rule of paranoia in the U.S." after the 2001 attacks.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty denied any anti-Muslim bias. He said at a news conference after the trial that the case was not about Islam but about terrorism. "The evidence in this case is overwhelming," McNulty said.
Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.