Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsMuslims

SUNDAY REPORT

The Entrepreneur Who Saw Road to Profit in Al Qaeda

The U.S. says Earnest James Ujaama pitched his idea for a 'jihad training camp' in Oregon to a reputed recruiter of terrorists.

September 22, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLY, Ore. — Prosperity may have bypassed this corner of the Pacific Northwest, but self-styled entrepreneur Earnest James Ujaama sensed opportunity. In the secluded landscape of parched ranch land and rugged volcanic outcroppings, he saw visions of Afghanistan--and a chance for profit in the jihad training business.

In the fall of 1999, federal authorities say, Ujaama faxed a proposal promoting creation of a "jihad training camp" in the United States. It was addressed to a radical London cleric and reputed Al Qaeda recruiter named Abu Hamza Al-Masri.

Ujaama--a Muslim convert from Seattle, born James Earnest Thompson--had become a protege of Abu Hamza, according to U.S. officials who say the American pledged bayat, an oath of loyalty, to the mullah. Ujaama studied Islam at the London mosque and helped manage an affiliated Web site advocating violence against the United States and other Western nations.

Initial response to the proposed Afghanistan-style training operation in rural Oregon seemed favorable.

Officials say two suspected Al Qaeda associates from Europe were soon dispatched to inspect the site, a tumbledown parcel containing several derelict trailers and cordoned off by barbed wire. Upon arrival, one of the operatives boasted that he was "a hit man" for Osama bin Laden, according to court records.

Ujaama, in his early 30s at the time, already had an impressive record of business start-ups. He had won acclaim from lawmakers in the Pacific Northwest and Nevada for his entrepreneurship and community activism. A Washington state legislator had even proclaimed an official day in his honor.

By the time Ujaama floated his training camp pitch--to charge recruits for instruction--he was already familiar with Al Qaeda's network of boot camps in eastern Afghanistan, authorities say. He had visited the region, holding a letter of introduction to Taliban authorities provided by Abu Hamza. He even helped one young recruit from the London mosque gain entry to a terrorist training facility in Afghanistan, according to law enforcement documents.

Ultimately, authorities say, Ujaama's audacious proposal disintegrated into a kind of moujahedeen comic-opera. According to federal investigators, the Al Qaeda agents who ventured to Oregon complained of grossly inflated claims and abysmal conditions at the ranch. Apparently blaming Ujaama, the burly militant calling himself Bin Laden's hit man mused about killing the Seattle deal-maker.

"Ujaama basically saw this as a cash cow," said one federal official, referring to the proposed Oregon camp. But, he said, once the amateurish reality on the ground became clear, "No self-respecting international terrorist would have anything to do with" Ujaama's plan.

Today, almost three years later, the 36-year-old Ujaama sits in federal custody in Seattle, accused of providing material support to international terrorists. At the heart of the indictment against him is the alleged training camp scheme.

Privately, however, authorities acknowledge that the case against Ujaama is aimed at bagging a more substantial quarry: the London cleric, Abu Hamza.

Abu Hamza is a striking figure--one-eyed, steel claws for hands, a victim, he says, of a mine explosion in Afghanistan. The sheik is an open admirer of Bin Laden and has inspired a global network of followers, making him one of the best-known advocates of militant Islam in Europe.

Earlier this month Abu Hamza and his mosque hosted a de facto celebration of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which was labeled "A Towering Day in History."

U.S. and French authorities have privately expressed frustration that London has not moved more aggressively against a number of British-based Muslim militants, notably Abu Hamza, a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom. Despite his incendiary talk--the cleric has urged youngsters to go to Afghanistan, has publicly justified last year's and other attacks, and has warned of more--Abu Hamza denies inciting or participating in violence. So far, British freedom of speech statutes have shielded him from prosecution. The sheik addressed Oxford students last year.

Sources have confirmed that Abu Hamza and the two alleged Al Qaeda emissaries dispatched to Oregon are the three unnamed co-conspirators cited in the indictment filed against Ujaama in federal court in Seattle.

Ujaama is not charged with anything related to last year's terrorist attacks. However, he is one of only a handful of U.S. natives accused of aiding Al Qaeda.

According to the indictment and other law enforcement accounts, Ujaama conspired with confederates "to murder and maim," while discussing crimes that included robberies, poisoning water supplies and firebombing vehicles.

The complex picture emerging of Ujaama is that of a hustler who dabbled on the fringes of global terrorism with an eye to make a buck--an image more suggestive of a capitalist go-getter than of a political or religious fanatic.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|