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Detroit Jury to Decide Whether Defendants Are Terrorists

Prosecutors say the four scouted targets. Men say they were 'in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

May 21, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — A federal jury will begin deciding this morning the first significant case of domestic terrorism to go to trial since the Sept. 11 attacks, deliberating whether four immigrants formed the nucleus of a sleeper cell that was casing targets for attack in the United States.

The 9-week-old trial is a test of the government's war on terrorism, especially because all of the other major terrorism cases have ended abruptly with plea agreements. But in Detroit, the four defendants chose to go to trial, and are risking as much as 25 years in prison if convicted.

Federal prosecutors, in closing arguments this week, told the jurors that more than prestige for the Justice Department is riding on this case, and that terrorists must know that the United States will not tolerate their presence in this country.

"Don't give these people another chance to make their plan effective," Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Convertino told the jury. "These people belong in prison."

But Richard Helfrick, an assistant federal public defender, countered that law enforcement officers make a terrible mistake when they arrest innocent people and let the real terrorists get away.

"All good people want the government to catch terrorists," said the lawyer for defendant Karim Koubriti. "But we want the government to make sure they prosecute real terrorists. Not some guys in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as part of a nationwide search for terrorism suspects, FBI agents knocked on the door of a low-rent flat in Detroit in the middle of the night, looking for a man on a terrorist watch list.

The man no longer lived in the apartment. But Koubriti, in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, let the agents in. Once inside, agents said, they learned that Koubriti and his two roommates had false identification cards and expired employee badges from the Detroit airport.

Authorities also found a cache of videotapes that the government said were surveillance shots of such landmarks as Disneyland, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and parts of New York City.

The defendants claim they never knew the items were in the apartment and that they must have been left behind by previous tenants.

Along with 24-year-old Koubriti, also charged in the case are his roommates, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, and Ahmed Hannan, 34. A fourth man, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 36, of Minneapolis, was also charged.

The men were indicted on conspiracy charges that they collaborated to provide material support and resources to their unnamed terrorist handlers by scouting targets for attack. In addition, the three roommates are being tried on charges of visa and identity card fraud.

Fifty-nine witnesses took the stand in the trial, but none was as controversial as Youssef Hmimssa, a 32-year-old immigrant from Morocco. He was used by the government to show that he broke off his friendship with the defendants when he became alarmed that they were preparing the way for terrorist attacks.

But defense attorneys were quick to cast doubts about Hmimssa's credibility.

They noted that he earlier cut a deal with prosecutors for leniency on credit card charges against him in return for his cooperation.

Meriem Ladjadj, the mother of Ali-Haimoud, has watched the proceedings from a back bench of the court. When Judge Gerald E. Rosen gave the jurors their final instructions, she broke into tears.

"I come every day," she said. "He is my son. They are all my sons."

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