Terrorism Trials & Investigations

Four Recent International Terrorism Prosecutions Include Benghazi Mastermind Khatallah and Chelsea Bomber

By Nora Ellingsen
Wednesday, October 11, 2017, 12:00 PM

Four international terrorism trials began, continued, or wrapped up in the past few weeks. In the Eastern District of New York, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda operative who had been deported from Pakistan to the United States, was convicted of terrorism charges by a federal jury. Across the bridge in the Southern District, the Chelsea bomber’s trial began last Monday. On the same day in D.C. federal district court, the mastermind behind the 2012 Benghazi attacks also stepped into the courtroom. Finally, in Boston, an Islamic State sympathizer who attempted to stab police officers also faced a jury in federal district court. Below is a brief update and the highlights of the ongoing trials.

 

Abu Khattalah: Benghazi Mastermind on Trial in Washington

Abu Khattalah arguably has the highest profile of any of the four terrorism defendants facing trial last week. The Libyan national is accused of planning the September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Nearly two years after the attack, special forces captured Khattalah in a villa south of Benghazi. Khattalah was questioned aboard a Navy ship while transiting the Atlantic Ocean, prior to arriving in Washington, D.C. Sarah Grant previously summarized Judge Cooper’s opinion on the government’s pretrial motion in limine, and I summarized Judge Cooper’s ruling denying Khatallah’s motion to suppress statements made to interviewers.

On Monday, three years after the defendant’s arrival in the U.S. and five years after the attack, the trial began in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The prosecution’s opening statement described Khattalah as the mastermind of the attacks that killed four Americans. The government alleged that Khattalah orchestrated the attacks on the U.S. compound, which the Washington Post says Khatallah mistakenly thought was “a cover for an illegal U.S. intelligence facility.” After the attack, the prosecution says Khattalah walked around the attack site carrying an AK-47 and was overheard at his apartment saying, “I attacked the American embassy.”

The prosecution outlined their case to the jury, indicating that the government will present videos of the attack site and Khattalah’s phone records, which show a spike in activity during the attack. They also promised testimony from several witnesses, including weapons and fire experts. Finally, a Libyan witness and U.S. government source, identified only as “Ali” will testify that he befriended Khattalah after the attack and eventually lured him to the villa where he was captured. According to the New York Times, the prosecution told jury members that Ali will testify that he saw equipment stolen from the mission building in Khattalah’s apartment and that the defendant said he would have killed “all the Americans” that night if others had not stopped him. Over the course of the operation, the U.S. government paid Ali $7 million.

The counsel for Khatallah painted a different picture in their opening statement. Khattalah was an innocent bystander who went to the attack site out of curiosity; he had heard that there was a protest. He spent that night directing traffic to keep bystanders safe. This “Libyan patriot,” they told the jury, had fought with the U.S. against former dictator Muammar Gaddafi and could not have possibly planned the attack. “He didn’t shoot anyone. He didn’t set any fires. He did not participate in the attacks.”

Following the opening statements, the jury heard testimony from the government’s first witness: Scott Wickland, a diplomatic security officer. Wickland testified that he was with the ambassador and Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department information management officer who was killed during the incident, on the night of the attack. He told jury members how the three men crawled on their stomachs, trying to reach a bathroom where they could open a window. Then, he told the jury, he lost the two men: “"I was breathing through the last centimeter of air on the ground. I'm yelling, 'Come on. We can make it. We're going to the bathroom.' Within 8 meters, they disappeared." Ambassador Stevens and Sean Patrick Smith, were eventually “choked to death by thick black smoke,” according to the prosecution.

The trial is expected to last as long as five more weeks.

 

Ahmad Khan Rahimi: Chelsea Bombing

Also on Monday, the trial of Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the alleged Chelsea bomber, began in the Southern District of New York. Rahimi is accused of planting two pressure-cooker bombs—one of which didn’t detonate, in New York City—and one in New Jersey in September 2016, injuring 30 people. I previously wrote about the case and indictment.

Early in the week, the defendant got off on the wrong foot with the court. Shortly before the trial began, Rahimi was briefly removed from the courtroom after he stood and demanded to address the court. When he was later allowed to return, the defendant apologized and told Judge Richard Berman that he was upset that he hadn’t been able to see his wife. The judge scolded Rahimi for his outburst but said he would look into the visitation issue.

The prosecutors painted Rahimi as a “soldier in a holy war against Americans” in their opening statement and told the jury that the defendant researched how to build pressure-cooker bombs online before buying all of the ingredients.

Over the next couple of days, the government began to introduce evidence, beginning with the jury surveillance video of Rahimi allegedly walking with several bags carrying pressure cooker bombs. Residents and local business owners near the explosion also testified about the initial tremors and permanent structural damage to their buildings that the explosion caused. The government also introduced parts of the pressure cooker and a cell phone that Rahimi had used as a detonator, recovered by FBI agents from the scene. Ebay records  showed someone named Ahmed Rahimi purchasing the ingredients for the bomb.

The government introduced its most dramatic piece of evidence—to which the defense previously objected—on Thursday: The prosecutors unveiled a now-mangled dumpster that the blast threw 120 feet. Rahimi allegedly planted the bomb next to the dumpster on 23rd Street before detonating it.

Finally, the government played a 911 call from a pedestrian who spotted the second bomb on West 27th Street: “I just saw this pot with wires coming out of it on the street.” Witnesses close to the first bomb testified that when it detonated, they “thought it was doomsday” and “felt absolute terror.”

The trial is expected to last through the end of next week.

 

David Daoud Wright: Islamic State

On September 20th, Boston’s first terrorism trial since that of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began in federal district court.

David Daoud Wright was initially charged in June 2015, along with his co-conspirators Nicholas Alexander Rovinski and his uncle, Usaamah Abdullah Rahim. The three men had been plotting  to behead controversial blogger Pamela Geller—who had previously hosted a contest to draw the prophet Muhammad—on behalf of the Islamic State. However, their plan was derailed when an impatient Rahim decided to target law enforcement officers instead. On June 2, 2015, Rahim, who was under FBI surveillance, tried to attack police officers with a knife in a Roslindale, Massachusetts parking lot. The officers shot and killed Rahim. Wright was subsequently charged with material support, obstruction of justice  and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries. Rovinski pleaded guilty in September 2016.

In her opening statement on September 20th, Wright’s defense attorney described a pathetic, insecure 500-pound man who lived with his mother: “What Davis Wright was in 2015 was a complete idiot.”

One week later, an FBI informant who has been described as the government’s star witness testified that during the course of 18 months of online communications, Wright had radicalized. According to the Boston Globe, the informant was born in Yemen but attended high school in Seattle. He later returned to Yemen where he worked for the Yemeni military and was trained to infiltrate al Qaeda. After several months undercover, the informant moved back to United States to study computer science at Wheaton College. Several months later, he was recruited by the FBI.

The court prohibited cell phones in the courtroom during the informant’s testimony, due to security concerns. The government asked to close the courtroom during the informant’s testimony after Wright asked someone in jail with him for assistance in “neutralizing” the information and Rovinski so neither one could testify against him. The judge denied the request, and the informant testified that he was only taking the stand to comply with a subpoena.

 

Al Farekh: al Qaeda

The last of the four trials wrapped up at the end of last month:  In the Eastern District of New York, a jury found Muhanad Mahmoud Al-Farekh guilty on September 29th of nine charges, all stemming from his involvement in the bombing of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman, a U.S. military installation in Khost, Afghanistan in 2009.

Farekh, a U.S. citizen who was born in Houston and grew up in Dubai, left the U.S. in 2005 for Canada, where he enrolled at the University of Manitoba. In 2007, he travelled to Pakistan with two of his peers, Canadian nationals Ferid Imam and Maiwand Yar. The three men, who became known as Winnipeg’s “Lost Boys,” wanted to fight against American forces and immediately joined al Qaeda upon their arrival in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). According to testimony from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police during trial, neither Imam nor Yar ever returned to Canada, and their whereabouts are not known publicly. Yar wrote home to his family in 2009, describing the members of al Qaeda and the Taliban as “the best people in the world.”

While the men settled in, three other American residents were also at the al Qaeda training camp: Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin planned to attack the New York City subway system. Ahmedzay, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to planning the attack, actually testified against Farekh last week. According to the New York Times, Ahmedzay said that at the training camp,  he taught Farekh how to handle pistols, machine guns, and hand grenades. Under his cooperation agreement with the government, Ahmedzay has testified for prosecutors three times, according to the New York Daily News.

While in Pakistan, Farekh began to work in al Qaeda’s external operations unit. According to a former al Qaeda member who testified from an unnamed country during the trial, Farekh adopted the kunya “Abdullah al Shami” during this time period. Farekh also helped to build a car bomb that would be used in the attack on FOB Chapman. At trial, the government presented evidence that two vehicles approached FOB Chapman, with the driver of the first car detonating a bomb in a suicide attack. However, the second vehicle fell into the crater created by the first explosion, and the driver fled the vehicle. According to a Justice Department press release, the government recovered the undetonated bomb from the second vehicle. Prosecutors showed at trial that 18 fingerprints from the adhesive packing tape wrapped around an undetonated third bomb matched Farekh; a hair follicle from the defendant was recovered from the scene.

The attack led to a debate within the U.S. government: According to the New York Times, officials disagreed about whether Farekh should be targeted in a drone strike or captured and brought to trial in the U.S.. But in 2014, Farekh was taken into custody in Pakistan based on intelligence that the U.S. provided. After being questioned by the Pakistani authorities, Pakistan deported Farekh United States and arrived in New York.

Though the trial lasted for three weeks, the defense moved for a mistrial during jury deliberations after but was Defense trial moved for a mistrial Farekh’s father approached several jurors in the elevator and asked whether it was fair that he had not seen his son in a decade. However, instead of declaring a mistrial, Judge Brian M. Cogan dismissed the four jurors and sent in three alternates, paring down the jury from 12 to 11 members. The remaining jurors deliberated for several days before returning the guilty verdict. Farekh faces a potential sentence of life in prison at sentencing.

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All of the trials are expected to last several weeks. In New York, the trial of Rahimi may wrap up at the end of this week, while Khatallah’s trial is expected to last over a month.