By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL Intelligence John Negroponte, speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee last month about threats to national security, said that federal authorities had uncovered a “network of Islamic extremists” in the San Joaquin County farming town of Lodi. These extremists recruited U.S. citizens for training at radical religious schools and raised money for “international jihadist groups,” according to Negroponte. He presented the Lodi example as evidence that Americans are not immune from “homegrown jihadist cells.”
Negroponte’s assessment matches the rhetoric that accompanied last summer’s raids of a Lodi mosque and the arrests there of two Pakistani-Americans and three Pakistani nationals, an anti-terrorism effort now culminating in a federal court trial in Sacramento.
But if a terrorist cell has been operating in Lodi in recent years, the trial, which began February 14, might be viewed as a disappointment. It involves one terrorism-related charge against a single defendant, 23-year-old Hamid Hayat, who allegedly provided material support to terrorists by attending a training camp in Pakistan between 2003 and 2004. He faces additional charges for initially lying to federal investigators about his suspected terrorist connections. His father, Umer Hayat, an ice-cream-truck driver, is charged with lying about his son’s activities. Both are U.S. citizens.
The younger Hayat attracted the attention of federal authorities when he returned to the United States from Pakistan at the end of May. In a June 3 FBI interview, Hayat denied attending any camps in Pakistan, but he conceded doing so June 4 after failing a voluntary polygraph examination. Interrogated separately, Umer Hayat denied his son’s terrorist ties, then admitted to them after watching a videotape of the confession, according to the allegations.
If Hayat’s admissions are to be believed, however, the government’s case has taken a strange course.
Hayat said that the local jihadist leaders were two imams at the Lodi Muslim Mosque, Muhammed Adil Khan and Khan’s protégé, Shabbir Ahmed. Both clerics were quickly arrested for immigration violations. In court documents and at immigration hearings, government attorneys said that Khan and Ahmed came to the United States to establish a radical Muslim school that would identify and train young jihadists for a holy war.
But prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento couldn’t provide any evidence to support these allegations. The suspects described as veteran jihadists and terrorist recruiters agreed to return to Pakistan to resolve their immigration cases, leaving many experts to conclude that no substantial evidence of a terror cell existed.
“If there is evidence that someone is really a terrorist, the last thing we would want to do is send them out of the country where we can’t follow them and where they are free to plan further attacks,” said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who has written extensively about terrorism cases, in a recent interview.
Though arrested after Hayat implicated them to the FBI, Khan and Ahmed were initial targets of the Lodi investigation, which began in the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“They were investigating these people since the year 2002, and they came up with nothing except simple visa violations,” Wazhma Mojaddidi, who is defending Hamid Hayat, told the Weekly during a day off from trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, led by McGregor Scott, won’t comment while the trial is pending. Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which assisted in the probe, defended the use of immigration proceedings as an important part of the “tool kit” in the war on terror.
“Just because you believe someone may pose a threat to national security doesn’t mean you have the considerable evidence needed to establish that they provided material support to terrorists,” Kice said, referring to the immigration proceedings against Khan and Ahmed.
Mojaddidi believes that, without the broader case, prosecutors set their sights on her client in the hopes of showing the massive Lodi probe was a success. Both she and Johnny Griffin, the lawyer for Umer Hayat, say that their clients made their confessions to the FBI under duress and merely told interrogators what they wanted to hear.
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION claims that more than 400 people have been charged with terrorism-related crimes in the post–September 11 era, and that 228 have been convicted. But the vast majority of these cases have involved minor crimes not directly related to terrorism, such as immigration violations, where the defendants met the same fate as Khan and Ahmed. In a report published in June, the Washington Post examined 361 cases identified as “terrorism-related” by the Justice Department and found only 39 convictions for crimes related to national security or terrorism.
Cole said that these cases often begin with dramatic public announcements and allegations but end with scaled-down prosecutions for the lesser crimes.
Some cases have embarrassed the government. In 2004, a Michigan federal judge tossed out the convictions of three members of the so-called “Detroit sleeper cell” after the Justice Department admitted that prosecutors engaged in serious misconduct by keeping key evidence from the defense.
That same year, a federal jury acquitted University of Idaho student Sami al-Hussayen of supporting terrorism by running Web sites that raised money for terrorist groups. Al-Hussayen was arrested in a highly publicized raid of the university campus in February 2003. Officials touted the crackdown on terrorist funding as dozens of law-enforcement agents swarmed the campus to interrogate Arab students.