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11 Indicted in Suspected Virginia Terrorist Cell

Authorities accuse the men of planning attacks in Kashmir, Chechnya and the Philippines.

June 28, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities arrested at least seven suspects Friday and accused them of belonging to a U.S.-based terrorist cell that was training and plotting to launch attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Chechnya, the Philippines and other countries.

In all, authorities charged 11 suspects -- nine of them U.S. citizens -- with 42 criminal counts, including "conspiracy to train for and participate in a violent jihad," in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

Authorities made no allegations that the men were planning attacks in the United States, although one of the suspects had a photograph downloaded from the Internet of FBI headquarters in Washington.

The suspects were described as being part of a Virginia-based cell of a militant Muslim organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and is characterized as strongly anti-United States. The stated goal of the organization, whose name means "army of the righteous," is to drive India out of the disputed Kashmir territory in South Asia.

For decades, India and Pakistan have clashed, along with indigenous Muslims in Kashmir, as to who should control the prime territory in the mountainous region. U.S. officials believe that Lashkar-e-Taiba has no official ties to global terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda but that it has launched many attacks, including suicide bombings, in Kashmir.

U.S. authorities said Friday that they also believe the group is expanding its portfolio to train fighters for Islamic conflicts elsewhere in the world and to attack U.S. interests overseas, in part by recruiting, plotting and fund-raising in the United States.

Three of the men were accused of using their U.S. military backgrounds to help train some of the other conspirators.

"When individuals meet in the shadows of our nation's capital to prepare for violent jihad, we will take action," said acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Christopher Wray.

In the indictments unsealed Friday, the Justice Department named the following defendants: Randall Todd Royer, 30; Ibrahim Ahmed Hamdi, a Yemeni national and nonresident alien; Masoud Ahmad Khan, 31; Yong Ki Kwon, 27, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Korea; Mohammed Aatique, 30, a Pakistani national and U.S. visa holder; Seifullah Chapman, 30; Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 35; Donald Thomas Surratt, 30; Caliph Basha ibn Abdur-Raheem, 29; Khwaja Mahmood Hasan, 27, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan; and Sabri Benkhala, 28.

Chapman, Hasan and Benkhala were believed to be in Saudi Arabia. U.S. authorities said one of them was arrested in Saudi Arabia recently by Saudi officials investigating the May 12 bombings in Riyadh. Those bombings, believed to be the work of Al Qaeda, killed 25 people at three residential compounds as well as nine suicide bombers.

U.S. Atty. Paul J. McNulty said that the suspects, almost all of them based in Virginia, were told after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "that it was time to engage in violent jihad, that it was appropriate for these members to take up arms in jihad."

"These indictments are a stark reminder that terrorist organizations of various allegiances are active in the United States, and these groups exploit America's freedom as a weapon to recruit and position themselves on our shores, in our society," McNulty said at a news conference.

The FBI arrested the suspects Friday in raids in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Some later appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Rawles Jones Jr.

Lawyers for the defendants could not be reached for comment, and authorities did not release the names of all of those arrested.

The defendants also were charged with violations of federal weapons laws and the Neutrality Act, which bans people residing in the United States from leaving to carry out attacks in countries that the U.S. is not at war with.

A lawyer familiar with the investigation, Ashraf Nubani, said the men had been unfairly harassed by the FBI for months. Nubani said that he does not represent any of the men but that he had discussed the case with them and their families. He also said three of them had alerted the media to a news conference Friday morning to proclaim their innocence but were arrested just hours before the event was scheduled to begin.

"This is a witch hunt," Nubani said. "I think the government is trying to become more careful in how they do these overreaching indictments, but there's no charge that these people were conspiring to harm the U.S. in any way."

He added that the guns mentioned in the weapons charges were legal for the men to possess.

"They are part of the community of Muslims here [in Northern Virginia], they are not terrorists," Nubani said. "Hopefully, the criminal justice system will bring about the proper result."

During a visit to Los Angeles on Friday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said he had just learned about the arrests. "We need to see who they are, where they were trained and how they were organized," he said.

According to the indictment, group members in Maryland, Virginia and Missouri began preparing for military action overseas before the Sept. 11 attacks and continued to do so through last month. It said others in the cell also trained in paramilitary tactics in Virginia, firing assault rifles and paintball guns to practice guerrilla warfare techniques.

The indictment also alleges that some of the defendants traveled to Pakistan to train with Lashkar-e-Taiba members there.

FBI and Justice Department officials said the arrests were the result of a long and ongoing investigation.

Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.

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