Defense Calls Trial Attack on Freedom ; but Prosecutors Say Islamic Scholar Urged Followers to Violence
The government’s prosecution of a prominent Islamic scholar accused of recruiting for the Taliban in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks is an assault on religious freedom, a defense lawyer said yesterday during the trial’s closing arguments.
“The government wants you to think Islam is your enemy,” said Edward MacMahon, who represents Ali al-Timimi, 41, of Fairfax County. “They want you to dislike him so much because of what he said that you’ll ignore the lack of evidence.”
Prosecutors, on the other hand, said al-Timimi is on trial not because of unpopular political or religious views but because he specifically urged his followers to take up arms against U.S. troops just five days after the 9/11 attacks, and because several of them traveled halfway around the world with just that intent.
“When Tony Soprano says, `Go whack that guy,’ it’s not protected speech,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg, drawing a comparison between al-Timimi and the fictional mob boss on “The Sopranos” TV series.
Al-Timimi, a native-born U.S. citizen who has an international reputation in some Islamic circles, is facing a 10-count indictment that includes charges of soliciting others to levy war against the United States and attempting to aid the Taliban.
The jury began deliberations yesterday afternoon after hearing two weeks of testimony. If convicted, al-Timimi faces up to life in prison.
The government contends that al-Timimi told his followers during a secret meeting on Sept. 16, 2001, that they were obliged as Muslims to defend the Taliban against a looming U.S. invasion.
Just days after that meeting, four of those in attendance flew to Pakistan and joined a militant group called Lashkar-e-Taiba. Three of the four testified at al-Timimi’s trial that their goal had been to obtain military training at the Lashkar camp and then cross the border to Afghanistan and join the Taliban. It was al-Timimi who inspired them to do so, the men testified.
None of the men actually made it to Afghanistan.
Kromberg said at the trial’s outset that al-Timimi enjoyed “rock star” status among his followers. Yesterday, he said al-Timimi knew that the men at the Sept. 16 meeting – many of whom had played paintball games in 2000 and 2001 as a means to train for holy war around the globe – would do as he instructed them.
“These guys couldn’t figure out how to tie their shoelaces without al-Timimi,” Kromberg said.
But MacMahon said that al-Ti-mimi merely counseled the men to leave the United States because it might be difficult to practice their religion in America in a post-Sept. 11 environment.
The three men who testified against al-Timimi at trial, he said, are all lying because they struck plea bargains with the government and are hoping to get their sentences reduced in exchange for helping the government.
MacMahon said it was two other men, Yong Ki Kwon and Randall Royer, who were the ones recruiting paintball players to join Lashkar-e-Taiba. Kwon, for instance, admitted that he and Royer had met a Lashkar recruiter in the spring of 2001 on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Kwon also acknowledged that Royer had trained in Pakistan with Lashkar and that he frequently had encouraged others to join Lashkar- e-Taiba well before Sept. 11 and well before the government alleges al-Timimi’s criminal conduct.
MacMahon pointed out to jurors that Kwon – one of the four who allegedly traveled to Pakistan at al-Timimi’s urging – had placed 25 phone calls to the other three in the three days before al-Timimi allegedly made his first exhortation on the Taliban’s behalf.
The government’s case, MacMahon said, is built on a misperception that Islam is a sinister religion and its practitioners deserve strict scrutiny.
The prosecution of al-Timimi “is a fundamental assault on the liberties we all hold so dear,” MacMahon told the jurors. “If you don’t believe our freedoms are under attack by this prosecution, you haven’t been sitting here.”
Kromberg disputed the notion that the government was casting aspersions on all Muslims.
“Ali Timimi does not speak for all Muslims. Ali Timimi speaks for his sect of Salafi Muslims,” Kromberg said. He was referring to a sect of the religion often equated to Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam practiced by many of the leading clerics in Saudi Arabia, where al-Timimi once studied.
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