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N.Y. Uber driver tried to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban, prosecutors say

People gather Sept. 25 in the main square of Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban had hung a body from a crane in the square, claiming it was that of a kidnapper killed by police. (AP)

NEW YORK — An Uber driver on trial for planning to travel to Afghanistan to kill U.S. citizens there was on his way to complete his mission when he was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in July 2019, federal prosecutors said in opening statements Wednesday.

Delowar Mohammed Hossain, 36, was headed to Afghanistan with a goal of becoming a member of the Taliban, a “violent, brutal group . . . who the U.S. government designated as terrorists,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Schrier said at the outset of Hossain’s trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Hossain was expecting to fly to Thailand, his first stop on a journey to a conflict zone where he hoped he could help the Taliban murder many Americans, Schrier said.

“He wasn’t just any other traveler — he was on a mission to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and kill Americans,” he said. “And he was on his way.”

Hossain faces decades in prison if convicted on two counts: attempting to provide material support and resources to terrorism and attempting to support the Taliban.

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The trial comes as the Biden administration and military officials face mounting criticism over the abrupt and deadly exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August, a remarkable and messy end to a 20-year conflict that began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan enabled the Taliban to swiftly regain control of the country.

By 2019, when Hossain decided he would leave his family and join a fundamentalist group, the Taliban “had already killed thousands of Americans,” Schrier added.

Hossain, of the Bronx, allegedly spent about a year plotting his trip. In that time, he studied literature of al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden. The literature included bombmaking instructions and a guide on pursuing jihad.

Hossain planned to attack a military facility in the Bronx and decided against it — believing he could kill only one or two Americans there, prosecutors told jurors, adding that he took steps to try to conceal his extremist tendencies from law enforcement. Officials said part of that plan included documenting proof of an interest in alcohol and other things off-limits to strict Muslims.

“He went to bars and strip clubs making sure he used his credit card,” Schrier argued.

Hossain allegedly also urged recruits, who were really confidential informants for the FBI, to “get dirty” as well, believing it would throw off law enforcement should they suspect his true intentions, the prosecutor said.

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Hossian’s attorney, Andrew Dalack, argued that the informants conned his client into making statements that would implicate him in what investigators would recognize as a terrorist plot. The informants, he said, made about $30,000 each for recordings and information they gathered.

Hossain “is a Muslim man with a wild imagination, an impassioned person who talked a lot about the Taliban,” Dalack argued.

While prosecutors said Hossain saved money to buy weapons in Afghanistan, his luggage at the time of his arrest was stuffed with designer clothes and gifts such as lotions and perfume for women he intended to meet in Thailand and Bangladesh, his attorney said.

“They are simply the items of a wannabe playboy,” Dalack argued, calling him a “bad husband” to his wife and children and a “hypocritical Muslim.” It was not proof of a crime but only of a man who was looking for an escape from a mundane life, he said.

Hossain even sought the help of informants in stocking up on hair gel, condoms and lubricant, “hardly the ingredients for a radical Islamist jihad,” Dalack argued.