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Terror Plots, Not Actions, Go on Trial

Ashcroft hails four cases against disaffected U.S. citizens or immigrants. Foes cite poor judgment.

March 17, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering when armed federal agents knocked at a second-floor apartment in the middle of the night. They were looking for Nabil al-Marabh, a Syrian long suspected of fomenting terrorism.

He was not there. Instead, the FBI found three other men, along with a trove of suspicious material about Los Angeles International Airport, Disneyland and other potential terrorist targets.

Now, 18 months later, the raid in southwest Detroit has developed into the first showcase trial in which the U.S. government will seek to prove that terrorists have indeed been afoot in America.

The trial is set to begin Tuesday in a federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. It is the first of four terrorism cases -- similar trials are upcoming in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Buffalo, N.Y. -- in which the defendants are charged with plotting terrorist acts, rather than committing them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Terrorist trials -- An article Monday in Section A on upcoming terrorist trials identified a defendant in Detroit as Abdella Lnu, as he was named in the indictment along with numerous aliases. He has since been officially identified by the government as Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi.

All four center on disaffected young Americans or recent immigrants drawn to the angry rhetoric of radical Islam, typical characteristics of Al Qaeda recruits. The government has presented evidence that all engaged in activity which, with the hindsight of Sept. 11, 2001, seems alarming.

Federal agents were trailing some of the suspects even before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Federal prosecutors trumpeted the arrests in all four cities. This month, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the arrests showed that "our strategy and tactics are working. We are winning the war on terrorism."

Critics contend the government has indiscriminately arrested Arab Americans and Muslims without regard for the protections of the U.S. Constitution, or without distinguishing between serious terrorists and people who pose little threat.

These four cases should help to answer the question of who is right.

Detroit

Karim Koubriti answered the door in his boxers and T-shirt on Sept. 17, 2001. Half asleep, he invited the agents inside.

Ahmed Hannan and Farouk Ali-Haimoud were roused from blankets and a sleeping bag. There were no beds and little furniture in the $400-a-month flat. The television set was broken; clothes were piled in large trash bags on the floor.

The men said they were new in town and worked at restaurants. The agents opened a desk drawer and spotted some identification badges for employees of Sky Chef restaurant at Detroit Metro Airport.

"They were surprised that we found the badges," said FBI agent Mary Ann Manescu.

All three were arrested and handcuffed. Agents recovered phony identification cards, passports and photos, video- and audiotapes, and a day-planner notebook.

The notebook contained Arabic notations referring to the "American base in Turkey," the "American foreign minister" and an airport in Jordan.

There also were sketches of what appeared to be an airport, complete with aircraft and runways.

Of the more than 100 tapes, some appeared to be surveillance panoramas of Disneyland and the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.

"Allah, take away the Jews and the Christians ..." says the voice on one of the tapes. "Allah, kill them all. Don't keep any of them alive."

The suspects contend they are being falsely implicated because of material left behind in the apartment by someone else.

All three were indicted in August, along with alleged collaborators Abdella Lnu and Youssef Hmimssa, on suspicion of conspiring to "damage or destroy" property in this country and abroad.

Hmimssa came to the attention of the FBI after his photograph was found in the apartment, and he was arrested in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has since been dropped from the case and appears to be cooperating with the government.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Convertino characterized the defendants as scouts for Al Qaeda, helping operatives identify weaknesses in potential targets.

"The evidence is infinitely stronger than it was at the time" of the apartment raid, he said. "It appears as though these individuals did have terrorist ties."

Prosecutors said that beginning in February 1998, before immigrating to this country, they agreed to call themselves ikhwan, or "brothers," and began preparing for violent attacks around the world.

Convertino said the three lived together in Detroit and nearby Dearborn and had "received direction" from Lnu, who lived in Chicago and had expertise in airport security operations, false IDs and the fraudulent use of phone-calling cards.

Prosecutors said that in June 2001, Ali-Haimoud prepared to send money and weapons to associates in Algeria. They said that same month, Hannan described to a government witness, apparently Hmimssa, the physical layout of the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan.

Koubriti had wanted to transport hazardous materials, prosecutors said. He also allegedly spoke in code over a public telephone about a scheme to import illegal material hidden in shoes.

Bly, Ore.

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