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Padilla's mosque time recalled

A witness appears to surprise prosecutors when he says he also considered training as an Islamic warrior.

June 01, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — In testimony that appeared to backfire for the prosecution, an ex-convict who attended the same mosque as terrorism suspect Jose Padilla testified Thursday that he himself had considered going abroad for training to become an Islamic holy warrior, as Padilla allegedly did.

Herbert Atwell, 38, was the second prosecution witness to characterize the alleged actions of Padilla and two codefendants not as terrorism but as acts of altruism in helping Muslims under siege in foreign countries.

Prosecutors had expected Atwell to recount how he observed codefendant Adham Amin Hassoun, a Lebanese-born Palestinian, promote anti-American sentiments at the South Florida mosque and recruited Padilla, among others, for terrorism training.

Padilla, Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi are accused of conspiracy to kill, maim or kidnap people abroad and of providing material support to terrorists. The indictment alleges that Hassoun and Jayyousi sought money and recruits to aid groups -- some later accused by the U.S. government of links to terrorism -- in foreign conflicts involving Muslims.

Atwell wrote to the FBI from a Georgia prison in the summer of 2002 after seeing Padilla on a TV news broadcast shortly after Padilla's arrest in Chicago.

U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke excused the jury before Atwell testified in case he ventured into topics off-limits in the trial. She also wanted to determine, without influencing jurors, whether he had been improperly assisted in identifying Hassoun as a frequent and incendiary speaker at the Sunrise mosque.

When Atwell wrote to the U.S. government in 2002, he made no mention of Hassoun. He did not speak of Hassoun until a meeting this January, when an FBI agent showed him photographs of the codefendant.

Jeanne Baker, a lawyer for Hassoun, implied that the government set up a chance for Atwell to encounter Hassoun in a courthouse lobby by summoning Atwell for a February hearing where Atwell had no role.

Inarticulate and at times surly under questioning by defense lawyers, Atwell conceded that he offered to testify against Padilla and Hassoun in hopes of getting out of prison. He said he was never promised any special consideration in return for supplying the government with accounts of what occurred at the Sunrise mosque, which he said he attended most evenings in the late 1990s.

"He was asking for money and for the brothers to be mujahedin fighters," Atwell recalled of Hassoun. "On several occasions he always had mujahedin fighters from all over the world -- Chechnya, Palestine."

The prosecutors seemed surprised when Atwell, under questioning by Baker, said he had considered becoming a holy warrior.

"I was thinking about going to be a mujahedin fighter myself," he said. "My wife was pregnant. If she wasn't pregnant, I would probably have gone to be a mujahedin fighter too."

Asked whether he had wanted to become a terrorist, Atwell vehemently replied no. He said that the media now portrayed mujahedin as terrorists but that at the time they were simply Muslims coming to the aid of fellow believers.

Atwell said Padilla "never talked that much" and that he remembered him mostly because of the Spanish-language Koran he would often read. Padilla is a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent.

Atwell will be brought back to testify before the jury Monday.

But his credibility as a witness is in question. Judge Cooke noted that Atwell adamantly insisted he saw photos of Padilla and Hassoun on an NBC News broadcast in 2002, when Hassoun was not yet charged with a crime and no connection with Padilla had been made.

"These two things cannot be allowed to exist together in a truthful universe," she said of the witness' statement after he had left the courtroom. She added that she was curious how the prosecution would "deal with his credibility."

Atwell reportedly has five felony convictions, including aggravated assault and battery of his now ex-wife. He contradicted himself repeatedly about what he could recall, depending on whether he was answering a question from the defense or prosecution.

The government had been expected to begin playing hundreds of wiretapped conversations involving the defendants this week, but defense challenges to numerous excerpts prompted Cooke to send the jury home early for the weekend so the lawyers could thrash out what would be allowed as evidence.

Seven cassette tapes said to contain recordings of Padilla were authenticated by translators and an FBI interrogator this week and are expected to provide the first physical evidence that the three defendants collaborated in their alleged aims of aiding terrorism.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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