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Case Based on 'Material Support'

Law: Government will get broad leeway in the prosecution of five men arrested near Buffalo.

September 16, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The government plans to prosecute the five alleged Al Qaeda operatives from the Buffalo, N.Y., area under a broad 1996 anti-terrorism law that does not require proof that the accused did anything illegal in the United States--or even planned to do so.

Instead, the government must show only that the defendants provided "material support" to a known terrorist organization by giving it money or taking its "training."

Legal experts said Sunday that anti-terrorism laws allow the government to cast a wide net to capture participants in a terrorist ring.

"This makes sense, because we are trying to cut off support for an organization that can wreak havoc--and participating in their training is a way of assisting the terrorist organization," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University.

The complaint, which was made public Saturday, says the five men--all U.S. citizens of Yemeni heritage--traveled to Afghanistan and took military training at an Al Qaeda camp in the summer of 2001. They were not charged with doing anything upon their return to Buffalo, and FBI agents found no weapons at their homes.

"We do not fully know the intentions of those charged today," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said Saturday.

Justice Department lawyers stressed that under the law, they did not have to show that the suspects intended to commit "an actual terrorist act."

The 1996 law makes it a crime to "knowingly provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations."

When the legislation was passed, lawmakers said they wanted to bar Americans from sending money to terrorist groups operating in the Middle East, such as Hamas. But the law was not limited to sending money. It defines "material support" to include "lodging, training, safe houses, false documentation or identification, ... weapons, explosives and transportation."

The law's wording suggests that it makes it illegal to provide training for terrorists, but department officials said it also applies to taking training from known terrorists.

The State Department had designated Al Qaeda a foreign terrorist organization in 1999, long before the five men from Buffalo traveled to Afghanistan for their training.

The 19 men who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks all were killed, and so far the government has not charged anyone in the United States with directly aiding the plot. However, charges have been lodged against several people for conspiring to aid terrorists.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, faces the death penalty if convicted of conspiring to aid the Sept. 11 terrorists, even though he was behind bars when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred. He was arrested in mid-August of 2001 after flight school officials in Minnesota became suspicious of his desire to fly jumbo jets despite his minimal flying skills.

Last month, a Seattle man, James Ujaama, was indicted for allegedly providing material support by setting up a training camp for terrorists.

In April, New York defense lawyer Lynne Stewart was charged with providing material support for terrorists because she allegedly passed messages from her client, imprisoned Sheik Abdel Rahman, to his followers.

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