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Two Guilty in Terrorism Trial

Jury in Detroit convicts the Arab immigrants of aiding terror in the first major case tied to 9/11. Two others are cleared of conspiracy charges.

June 04, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal court jury in Detroit convicted two North African immigrants on terrorism and conspiracy charges Tuesday in the first major criminal trial stemming from the investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The jury acquitted two other North African men of being part of what prosecutors contended was a domestic "sleeper cell," convicting one of them on lesser charges and exonerating another altogether.

The verdicts brought to a close a 10-week trial that marked the first test of the Bush administration's courtroom efforts to prosecute suspected terrorists in the United States. Before Tuesday, suspects in other high-profile terrorism prosecutions in Lackawanna, N.Y., and Seattle had pleaded guilty, allowing the government to gain convictions without having to prove the cases in court.

The Detroit arrests of the four men, who are from Morocco and Algeria, came just six days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Agents found them while searching the former apartment of another terrorist suspect.

It was a time of heightened alert in the nation, and agents immediately suspected that they had closed down a "sleeper cell" when their search of the suspects' low-rent apartment turned up videotapes depicting scenes of Disneyland and the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas, a map and a day planner notebook -- all of which authorities deemed to be surveillance material for future attacks.

Indeed, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft publicly suggested at the time that the men might have had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot, although his office later acknowledged that there was no proof of that.

Found guilty were Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 37, and Karim Koubriti, 24, both convicted of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists, and of conspiring to engage in fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other identification documents.

Elmardoudi faces 15 to 20 years in prison, and Koubriti, who was acquitted on some of the fraud charges, could be sentenced to 10 years, officials said.

Ahmed Hannan, 34, was acquitted of terrorism and terrorism conspiracy charges, but found guilty on the lesser identification fraud charges; he could receive five years in prison.

Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, was acquitted of all charges. He wept after the jury left the courtroom.

The mixed verdicts spawned a wide range of emotions.

"My client feels lousy; he's devastated," Elmardoudi's defense attorney, William Swor, said in an interview. "Really, he's not a terrorist."

At the home of Ali-Haimoud's family in Detroit, there was jubilation over his acquittal.

"My mother and I are very, very happy," said his sister Sara Duessoum. "He's going to come home and we're going to talk and have fun."

In Washington, Ashcroft issued a statement saying, "Every victory in the courtroom brings us closer to our ultimate goal of victory in the war on terrorism." He made no mention of Ali-Haimoud's acquittal.

The jury, dealing with a sprawling legal case and multiple defendants, deliberated for seven days before reaching a verdict Tuesday morning.

In a four-paragraph statement written by jury members and read by U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen in court, the jurors acknowledged that "this was a very complex case which presented challenging issues and questions of fact."

The jurors said they "worked very hard in their deliberations and went through all of the evidence presented by both sides carefully and thoroughly."

Government attorneys said that before immigrating to this country in February 1998, Koubriti, Ali-Haimoud and Hannan agreed to call themselves ikhwan, or "brothers," and vowed to prepare for attacks around the world. The three lived together in Detroit and nearby Dearborn. When the three were arrested, they said they were new in town and worked at restaurants. Elmardoudi, meanwhile, lived in Minnesota, and authorities believe he supervised the group's alleged terrorist plots.

The government's case against the men rested on two foundations -- the material found in the Detroit apartment, and five days of testimony from a fifth man who said he broke off his relationship with the defendants because he feared for his safety.

The defense said the material discovered inside the apartment had been left there by the previous occupant. But FBI agents and prosecutors told the jury that it was used by the defendants as surveillance tools in scouting upcoming targets against the United States.

While the videotapes showed scenes of Disneyland and the MGM Grand Casino, the day planner, discovered in a suitcase in a closet, allegedly outlined other locations. The map was believed to be a blueprint of the flight line at a U.S. airbase in Turkey.

During the trial, Paul George, an FBI expert on terrorism, told the jury that one 90-minute tape was a "repository of intelligence" for terrorists planning to attack America.

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