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From behind bars, waging a verbal jihad

December 24, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Staring at their accusers from a glass courtroom cell, the 30 defendants look more like thugs, laborers or fundamentalists than writers.

But they fought their jihad with the pen as well as the sword, prosecutors say. The men are charged with plotting to bomb the high-security courthouse where they are now on trial. The evidence centers on about 500 letters they wrote, mostly behind bars.

The handwritten texts reveal an epistolary extremist subculture. They are voices of rage and affection, erudition and ignorance. The letters chart the radicalization of a group that was aligned with North African terrorist networks, prosecutors say, and had contacts from the Netherlands to Lompoc.

"We thank God for having put jihad at the highest level, and those who prepare others to elevate the name of God and his religion will be rewarded," a Lebanese defendant named Hoari Jera wrote in late 2004. "The brothers who are in the mountains fight with bullets and bombs, and those who are in the prisons of the infidels fight through the preaching of Islam with the heart, tongue and pen."

Like the others, Jera was a prolific jailhouse wordsmith. From a prison in the Spanish city of Leon, the 27-year-old fired off letters to the accused ringleader, Abderrahmane Tahiri, 34, a Moroccan who was doing time for credit-card fraud in Salamanca and then Mallorca.

The balding, burly Tahiri has displayed his power during the trial, leading a rowdy protest that ended in scuffles with bailiffs. He has deep knowledge of the Koran. He allegedly underwent terrorist training in Algeria with a network that is now known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and that claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings this month in Algeria.

The Times has obtained the defendants' correspondence with one another and with friends and relatives. Written in Arabic, Spanish and French, the letters discuss topics including religion, court cases and family entanglements. But they return obsessively to themes of combat and death.

"I stopped the hunger strike five days ago, so I am ready to start the fight against the enemies of God," Jera reported to Tahiri in late 2002. "Because there is a big war here between me and the prison guards, but only verbal, but from now on if someone lays a hand on me I will hit him with all my strength."

The jailhouse missives were a continuation of holy war by other means, but went largely undetected, prosecutors say. Seeking inspiration, the inmates corresponded with three terrorists convicted in the World Trade Center bombing that killed six people in New York in 1993. The militants here admired the trio in U.S. federal prisons because of their historic attack on America and because of letters and poems they published in Arabic presses after their incarceration.

Responding to Tahiri from the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Mohammed Amin Salameh sounded as if he were schooling a novice scribe. The Jordanian, who is serving a 116-year sentence for the World Trade Center bombing, gave the Moroccan advice and the address of a newspaper editor in London.

"As far as the Al Quds magazine, I think you have more chances to publish there than in the Al Hayat magazine," Salameh wrote. He said that he had published at least eight articles and was writing another: "I want to show with my article the falseness of the American system. See if you can photocopy my article and send it to me by mail because I want a free subscription to Al Quds Al Arabia, and to do that I need to show them that I already have published several articles in their magazine."

Salameh ranted about the U.S. penal system. "In this country, prisons are considered an industry and in every prison there is a third or quarter of the inmates who are working for a little money, even the inmates call this slavery," he wrote. "The American Constitution says that the era of slavery ended, except for people who committed crimes."

In his last letter in the court file, Salameh told the Moroccan that he had been transferred to the nation's top-security federal prison in Florence, Colo. Guards chained him whenever he left his isolation cell, and confiscated all but eight of his books, he said.

"I am in a lamentable situation," he wrote. "I am prohibited all information . . . and only allowed to write letters on condition of translating them into English, whether those I get or receive. . . . The most dangerous inmates in the United States are in this prison."

The transatlantic correspondence took place in 2002 as Tahiri founded his own group, the Martyrs of Morocco, in the Topas prison of Salamanca and A Lama in Pontevedra, where one of his lieutenants was jailed.

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