A Remarkable Month for the Justice Department and Terrorism-Related Prosecutions

By Robert Chesney
Wednesday, October 27, 2010, 2:34 PM

October has been good to the Justice Department , with a remarkable number of arrests, convictions, and sentences in terrorism-related cases over the past two weeks.  This pattern of success tends to undermine claims that DOJ is ineffective or fumbling in its terrorism-related prosecutorial efforts.  To be fair, we don’t hear that line of criticism these days nearly as often as we used to.  Perhaps some who would otherwise be inclined to criticize DOJ are reluctant to do so lest they provide ammunition to those who would prefer to see greater reliance on military detention or trial by military commission; perhaps DOJ is simply doing a good job.  In any event, the past two weeks have seen DOJ racking up a series of successes, including the following 7 terrorism-related cases:

1. United States v. Ahmed (E.D. Va. Oct. 27, 2010) (indictment alleging attempted material support in relation to plot to bomb DC-area Metrorail stations).

From the press release (indictment here):

WASHINGTON – Farooque Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn, Va., was arrested today for attempting to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings at Metrorail stations in the Washington, D.C., area.

David Kris, Assistant Attorney General for National Security; Neil H. MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; and John G. Perren, Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office, made the announcement after Ahmed was taken into custody earlier this morning.

In announcing this arrest, officials emphasized that at no time was the public in danger during this investigation and that the FBI was aware of Ahmed’s activities from before the alleged attempt began and closely monitored his activities until his arrest. The public should be assured that there was no threat against Metrorail or the general public in the Washington, D.C., area.

Yesterday, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., returned a three-count indictment against Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, charging him with attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility, and attempting to provide material support to help carry out multiple bombings to cause mass casualties at D.C.-area Metrorail stations.  If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison.

Ahmed was arrested by the FBI early this morning and is scheduled to make his first appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Anderson at 2:00 P.M. EDT at the federal courthouse in Alexandria.

According to the indictment, from April 2010 through Oct. 25, 2010, Ahmed attempted to assist others whom he believed to be members of al-Qaeda in planning multiple bombings to cause mass casualties at Metrorail stations. On April 18, 2010, Ahmed allegedly drove to a hotel in Dulles, Va., and met with a courier he believed to be affiliated with a terrorist organization who provided Ahmed with a document that provided potential locations at which future meetings could be arranged.  On or about May 15, 2010, at a hotel in Herndon, Va., Ahmed allegedly agreed to watch and photograph another hotel in Washington, D.C., and a Metrorail station in Arlington, Va., to obtain information about their security and busiest periods.

According to the indictment, Ahmed allegedly participated in surveillance and recorded video images of Metrorail stations in Arlington, Va., on four occasions. On or about July 19, 2010, in a hotel room in Sterling, Va., Ahmed allegedly handed a memory stick containing video images of a Metrorail station in Arlington to an individual whom Ahmed believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda.  On that same day, Ahmed allegedly agreed to assess the security of two other Metrorail stations in Arlington as locations of terrorist attacks.

The indictment further alleges that, on or about Sept. 28, 2010, in a hotel room in Herndon, Ahmed handed a USB drive containing images of two Metrorail stations in Arlington to an individual whom Ahmed believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda.

According to the indictment, on or about Sept. 28, 2010, Ahmed provided to an individual whom he believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda diagrams that Ahmed drew of three Metrorail stations in Arlington and provided suggestions as to where explosives should be placed on trains in Metrorail stations in Arlington to kill the most people in simultaneous attacks planned for 2011.

2. United States v. Shehadeh (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 25, 2010) (complaint alleging false statements relating to investigation of international terrorism, in connection with plans to travel abroad to fight against U.S. forces)

 

From the press release (see here for the complaint):

A criminal complaint was unsealed yesterday in the Eastern District of New York charging Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, age 21 and a U.S. citizen and resident of Hawaii, with making false statements in a matter involving international terrorism. Shehadeh was arrested on Friday, October 22, in Honolulu, Hawaii. At his initial appearance yesterday at the United States Courthouse in Honolulu, Shehadeh was ordered detained and consented to being removed to the Eastern District of New York for further proceedings.

According to the complaint, in early 2008, Shehadeh, at the time a resident of Staten Island, New York, devised a plan to travel to Pakistan in order to join the Taliban or a similar fighting group. In furtherance of his plan, on June 13, 2008, Shehadeh flew on a one-way airline ticket from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, to Islamabad, Pakistan. Upon landing in Pakistan, Shehadeh was denied entry into the country by Pakistani officials, and he returned to the United States. He was questioned by FBI agents and NYPD detectives on multiple occasions about the purpose of his trip to Pakistan, and he told them that he had traveled to Pakistan in order to visit an Islamic university and to attend a friend’s wedding. The complaint alleges that Shehadeh subsequently admitted to FBI agents in Hawaii that the true purpose of his trip to Pakistan was to join a fighting group such as the Taliban. The complaint also alleges that Shehadeh attempted to recruit another individual to join him for this purpose immediately after the two discussed a sermon by the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to the complaint, several weeks after Shehadeh was denied entry to Pakistan, he attempted to enlist in the United States Army at the Times Square recruiting station in New York City. Shehadeh’s application was denied when it was discovered that he had concealed his prior trip to Pakistan. Although Shehadeh claimed that he attempted to enlist for career opportunities and benefits, the complaint alleges that his true motive was to deploy to Iraq, where he intended to desert and fight against the United States military alongside Iraqi insurgent forces.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Shehadeh created and administered multiple web sites dedicated to spreading violent jihadist ideology. The content of these web sites included, among other things, speeches from known al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Yahya al-Libi and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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If convicted of making false statements in a matter involving international terrorism, Shehadeh faces a maximum sentence of eight years’ imprisonment.

3. United States v. Mirza (S.D. Tex. Oct. 22, 2010) (15 year sentence following jury conviction for unlawful firearm possession and conspiracy to provide material support to the Taliban)

HOUSTON – A Pakistani national who entered the United States on a student visa has been sentenced to 15 years in federal prison without parole for unlawfully possessing firearms and conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas José Angel Moreno and FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard C. Powers announced today.

Adnan Mirza, 33, convicted in May 2010 following a jury trial of all nine counts charged, was sentenced today by Senior U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein to a total of 180 months in prison without parole. Mirza has also been fined $1,000 for each of the nine counts of conviction for a total of $9,000.

As a foreign national who had entered the United States on a student visa to attend a local community college in 2005 and 2006, Mirza is not permitted by federal law to possess firearms while in the United States. An FBI undercover investigation resulted in proof that Mirza and others intended to send funds to the Taliban and had engaged in weekend camping/training and practice sessions with firearms to prepare for “jihad” on six different occasions beginning in May 2006 at a location on the north side of Houston. …

4. United States v. Chesser (E.D. Va. Oct. 20, 2010) (guilty plea – communicating threats, soliciting others to plant fake bombs in order to induce law enforcement to take less care over time, attempt to provide material support to al-Shabaab)

From the press release (information here):

WASHINGTON – Zachary Adam Chesser, 20, of Fairfax County, Va., pleaded guilty today before U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady to a three-count criminal information that included charges of communicating threats against the writers of the South Park television show, soliciting violent jihadists to desensitize law enforcement, and attempting to provide material support to Al-Shabaab, a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Chesser faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 25, 2011.

According to court documents filed with his plea agreement, Chesser maintained several online profiles dedicated to extremist jihad propaganda. Today, Chesser pleaded guilty to taking repeated steps in April 2010 to encourage violent jihadists to attack the writers of South Park for their depiction of Muhammad, including highlighting their residence and urging online readers to “pay them a visit.” Among the steps he took was posting on multiple occasions speeches by Anwar Al-Awlaki, which explained the Islamic justification for killing those who insult or defame Muhammad. Al-Awlaki was designated by the United States as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” on July 12, 2010.

Chesser also admitted that in May 2010, he posted to a jihadist website the personal contact information of individuals who had joined the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” group on Facebook, with the prompting that this is, “Just a place to start.”

Chesser also pleaded guilty to soliciting others to desensitize law enforcement by placing suspicious-looking but innocent packages in public places. Chesser explained through a posting online that once law enforcement was desensitized, a real explosive could be used. Chesser ended the posting with the words, “Boom! No more kuffar.” According to court documents, “kuffar” means unbeliever, or disbeliever.

According to court records, Chesser also admitted that from at least January 2010 through July 2010, he posted numerous messages online that included calls from Al-Awlaki to join violent jihadists and step-by-step actions individuals needed to take to leave for jihad. Among those postings included a video Chesser made that featured images of mujahedeen in Somalia and a song, sung by Chesser, with the translated title, “America We Are Coming.”

Chesser admitted that he promoted online what he called “Open Source Jihad,” where he would direct jihadists through his online forums to information on the Internet that they could use to elude capture and death while maintaining relevance and striking capability. This included linking to the entire security screening manual used by the Transportation Security Administration and hundreds of books that contained information on the construction of antiaircraft missiles, and tactics, techniques and weapons for targeting aircraft such as jet airplanes and helicopters.

In addition, Chesser pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to Al-Shabaab. On Feb. 29, 2008, the U.S. Department of State designated Al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization, describing it as a violent and brutal extremist group based in Somalia with a number of individuals affiliated with Al-Qaeda. This designation prohibits providing material support or resources to Al-Shabaab.

According to court records, Chesser admitted that he twice attempted to leave the United States and travel to Somalia for the purpose of joining Al-Shabaab and engage in violent jihad as a foreign fighter. The first attempt was in November 2009, which was postponed because his wife was unable to obtain her passport. The second attempt was on July 10, 2010, when he sought to board a flight from New York to Uganda with his infant son. He was prevented from boarding the plane, and Chesser admitted that he brought his son with him as part of his “cover” to avoid detection of his intention to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia. He also attempted to board the plane with a video camera, which he admitted in court that he intended to use to make production quality videos for al-Shabaab’s propaganda campaign.

Chesser also admitted today in court that he posted several online messages in support of Al-Shabaab, including videos of attacks by Al-Shabaab on a government building in Mogadishu, a video claiming that African Union troops are responsible for killing civilians in Somalia, a video supporting the merger of Al-Shabaab with another organization, and links to what Chesser described as the “Al Qaeda Manual” that included instructions in support of violent jihad.

5. United States v. Smadi (N.D. Tex. Oct. 19, 2010) (sentencing in bomb plot in Dallas)

Press release:

WASHINGTON — Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was sentenced today by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn to 24 years in prison for his attempted bombing of a downtown Dallas skyscraper in September 2009, announced David Kris, Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division; U.S. Attorney James T. Jacks of the Northern District of Texas; and Robert E. Casey Jr., Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Dallas Field Division. Smadi, 20, pleaded guilty on May 26, 2010, to one count of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

According to documents filed, on Sept. 24, 2009, Smadi knowingly took possession of a truck that contained a weapon of mass destruction, specifically a destructive device or bomb. The truck with the bomb inside was a vehicle borne improvised explosive device. Smadi believed that this was an active weapon of mass destruction, and while it was inert when Smadi took possession of it, it was a readily-convertible weapon of mass destruction.

Also according to documents filed, Smadi knowingly drove the truck containing the bomb to Fountain Place, a 60-story public office building located at 1445 Ross Avenue in Dallas, and parked it in the public parking garage under the building. After parking the truck, Smadi activated a timer connected to the device, locked the truck and walked away. Smadi walked out of the parking garage, crossed the street and got into a car with an undercover law enforcement agent. They drove a safe distance away and prepared to watch the explosion. Smadi, who believed the bomb would explode and cause extensive damage, used a cell phone to remotely activate the device.

6. United States v. Naidu (D. Maryland Oct. 18, 2010) (conviction in material support case)

Balraj Naidu of Singapore was convicted by a jury today on charges of conspiring to provide material support to the Tamil Tigers in the form of weaponry. Details from the press release follow:

BALTIMORE – A federal jury today convicted Balraj Naidu, 48, a citizen of the Republic of Singapore, of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Justice Department announced.

According to evidence presented at his five day trial, beginning in February 2006, Naidu and his co-conspirators attempted to purchase state of the art weaponry from China, Thailand, North Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia for the terrorist organization, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) operating within Sri Lanka, to be used to fight against Sri Lankan government forces. Several arms merchants refused to supply the Tamil Tigers with weaponry once the destination for the arms had been disclosed by Naidu and his associates. In April 2006, Naidu’s Indonesian sources for weapons unwittingly introduced Naidu and his associates to an agent for an undercover business in Maryland that purported to sell military weapons.

The evidence showed that in the subsequent months, the conspirators’ negotiations with the undercover agent centered on the acquisition of American made weaponry. Terms of the sale included delivery of the weapons to locations in international waters off the coast of Sri Lanka. The weaponry was to be off-loaded by the Sea Tigers, the naval branch of the Tamil Tigers. A co-conspirator, Haniffa Bin Osman, visited Baltimore in the summer of 2006, where he examined and test-fired much of the weaponry. As a result of the trip, Tamil Tiger representatives wire transferred $250,000 into the undercover business’ accounts as down payment on a $900,000 weapons deal. Approximately 28 tons of weapons and ammunition, which the conspirators believed they were purchasing, was air-lifted to the U.S. territory of Guam. On Sept. 29, 2006, after inspecting the weapons and transferring an additional $450,000 into the undercover business’ accounts, co-conspirators Bin Osman, Haji Subandi, Erick Wotulo and Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa were arrested and indicted. The investigation continued and led to the indictment of Naidu and an alleged Tamil Tigers financier on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to the Tamil Tigers and related offenses.

Naidu faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake scheduled sentencing for Dec. 16, 2010, at 11 a.m.

Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa, 40, a citizen of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka; Haji Subandi, 73, and retired Indonesian Marine Corps General Erick Wotulo, 62, both citizens of the Republic of Indonesia; and Haniffa Bin Osman, 59, a citizen of the Republic of Singapore, pleaded guilty to their participation in the conspiracy and were sentenced to 57 months, 37 months, 30 months and 37 months in prison, respectively.

7. United States v. Cromatie (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2010)

Convictions today in New York in connection with a plot to attack a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Bronx and to attempt to shoot down military aircraft flying out of Newburgh. Details from the press release:

NEW YORK – James Cromitie, aka Abdul Rahman, aka Abdul Rehman; David Williams, aka Daoud, aka DL; Onta Williams, aka Hamza; and Laguerre Payen, aka Amin, aka Almondo, were found guilty today of plotting to detonate explosives near a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., and to shoot military planes located at the New York Air National Guard Base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, announced Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The four men were arrested on May 20, 2009, in the Bronx after planting what they believed were live explosives at various target locations, and were subsequently indicted on June 2, 2009.

“Homegrown terrorism is a serious threat, and today’s convictions affirm our commitment to do everything we can to protect against it,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara. “The defendants in this case agreed to plant bombs and use missiles they thought were very real weapons of terrorism. We are safer today as a result of these convictions. We thank the members of the jury for their time and diligent service. We also commend the extraordinary work of the prosecutors, agents, and detectives who demonstrated unyielding dedication during the investigation and prosecution of this case.”

According to the complaint, indictment, and the evidence presented at trial before U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, in June 2008, an informant working with the FBI was approached by Cromitie in Newburgh. Cromitie explained to the informant that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and that he was upset about the war there. Cromitie expressed interest in returning to Afghanistan and said that if he were to die a martyr, he would go to “paradise.” Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing “something to America.” The following month, Cromitie and the informant discussed Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based designated foreign terrorist organization, with which the informant claimed to be involved, and Cromitie stated that he would be interested in joining the organization to “do jihad.”

During further meetings with the informant, Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen discussed their desire to attack certain targets in New York, including a synagogue in the Bronx and military aircraft located at the Air National Guard Base. Cromitie asked the informant to supply surface-to-air guided missiles and explosives for the planned operations. The informant responded that he could provide Cromitie with C-4 plastic explosives.

After Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen selected the synagogue and Jewish community center they intended to target and conducted surveillance of military planes at the Air National Guard Base, Cromitie, David Williams and Payen drove with the informant toward Stamford, Conn., to obtain what the defendants were told would be a surface-to-air guided missile system and three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) containing C-4 plastic explosive material. The informant provided the defendants with a Stinger surface-to-air guided missile provided by the FBI that was not capable of being fired, telling the defendants that he had obtained it from Jaish-e-Mohammed. The informant also provided three IEDs that each contained more than 30 pounds of inert C-4 plastic explosives, again telling the defendants that he had obtained them from Jaish-e-Mohammed. Cromitie, David Williams and Payen transported these weapons back to Newburgh. Two days later, Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen met to inspect the “missile system” and the “explosive devices” and to further discuss the logistics of the operation.

Cromitie, 44; David Williams, 29; Onta Williams, 34; and Payen, 29, were found guilty of counts one through seven in the indictment. Cromitie and David Williams were also found guilty of count 8 in the indictment. The charges and maximum penalties are described in the chart below.

Count Charge Maximum Prison Term
1 Conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States Life
2 Attempt to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States Life
3 Attempt to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States Life
4 Attempt to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States Life

5 Conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles Life*
6 Attempt to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles Life*
7 Conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the United States Life

8 Attempt to kill officers and employees of the United States 20 years

*Counts Five and Six also carry mandatory minimum penalties of 25 years in prison.