-- Two U.S. citizens -- a jazz musician and a physician arrested over the weekend and accused of conspiring to aid al Qaeda -- made their initial court appearances in New York and Florida on Tuesday.
In Manhattan, Tarik Ibn Osman Shah made a brief appearance before a magistrate judge who set a preliminary hearing for late June. No plea was entered.
In Fort Pierce, Fla., Rafiq Sabir, who is being held without bail, told a federal judge that he had not hired an attorney. A hearing was set for Friday.
Sabir and Shah, described in court papers as longtime friends, were arrested separately last Friday as part of a two-year federal sting operation involving a government informer and undercover FBI agent. Sabir and Shah are each charged with a single count of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
Shah is described by officials and acquaintances as an accomplished martial arts instructor and a jazz bassist who played regularly in New York clubs. In Boca Raton, Fla., where Sabir lives, a spokesman for a local Islamic center told the Associated Press that the defendant is "a broke doctor" who practices in the United States and Saudi Arabia to support his wife and two sons.
But in a criminal complaint, prosecutors said that the two men pledged loyalty, or bayat, to Osama bin Laden in tape-recorded conversations with an undercover FBI agent and that they conspired to use their medical and martial arts skills to train and aid al Qaeda fighters. If convicted, they could face a 15-year maximum sentence.
"Shah indicated his greatest cover has been as a professional jazz musician," FBI agent Brian Murphy wrote in the complaint filed Friday.
Murphy also said that Shah had scouted sites, including a warehouse, where he planned to train al Qaeda members in "how to use swords and machetes."
Outside the courthouse in Manhattan, Shah's attorney, Anthony Ricco, characterized the case as religiously motivated and a "desperate prosecution on the part of the government." He said defense counsel had not reviewed any tapes in the case.
"The one thing this government is good at is setting up these sting operations," Ricco said. "He [Shah] wouldn't be here if he wasn't Muslim. . . . If someone is such a threat to our security, it makes me wonder what they've been talking about for the last two years."
The prosecution of Shah and Sabir is the latest high-profile sting by FBI counterterrorism agents, who have posed as al Qaeda members as part of investigations into missile sales, arms smuggling and other potentially illegal enterprises. In Houston, authorities charged a Pennsylvania man earlier in May with attempting to sell a bomb to agents he thought were Russian mafia members with al Qaeda ties.
Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. attorney in Miami, said a federal judge in Fort Pierce scheduled a hearing for Friday in Sabir's case. If he has found an attorney by that time, another hearing will be held Monday to consider transferring him to New York to face the criminal complaint there, Valle said.
In New York, musicians and family friends described Shah, 42, as a gifted bassist. A longtime figure on the jazz circuit, Shah performed at some of Harlem's well-known venues and was a regular in Donald Smith's quintet.
Smith, a pianist who has known Shah for 20 years, said Shah was raised as a Muslim and his father had practiced martial arts. Shah abandoned his musical career for a while "because he was tired of all the alcohol associated with the business," Smith said, and opened several martial arts schools for children in the New York City area.
Smith said friends persuaded Shah to return to the music scene about four years ago. Recently, Shah and fellow musicians had started renovating his mother's house.
"This man doesn't even have time to do the things they say he did," Smith said.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.