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.

But David Nevin, who defended Al-Hussayen, said that federal authorities detained his client for 11 months on immigration charges before even formally filing the terrorism-related allegations. He felt the government’s case was based largely on speculation and that the detention period was used to look for more evidence.

“That’s an improper use of the process,” said Nevin, whose client returned to Saudi Arabia because he still faced immigration charges.

The Lodi campaign has raised similar concerns. Saad Ahmad, the defense lawyer for imams Khan and Ahmed, regularly criticized the government’s use of terrorist assertions against his clients without any evidence or charges. Muslim groups in general since September 11 have criticized the widespread use of immigration proceedings to detain suspected individuals, who often choose to leave the country rather than wait in custody for their administrative cases to proceed.

The Hayats have been in custody since their June 5 arrests, but the younger Hayat wasn’t hit with the terrorism-related charge until September 22. Prosecutors successfully argued against bail for Umer Hayat, in part by saying they could charge him with a similar terrorism charge, though they never did.

The Hayats’ attorneys wanted to go to trial within 70 days of the indictment, a defendant’s right under the Speedy Trial Act. But assistant U.S. attorneys Robert Tice-Raskin and Laura Ferris succeeded in getting U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell to delay the trial. Echoing Nevin, Mojaddidi said that she and Griffin believed that authorities arrested their clients without having the evidence lined up.

“Our position has always been that if the government was going to charge these men, at that point they should have known exactly what their case was and should have been prepared to go to trial,” Mojaddidi said.

At the start of February, prosecutors provided defense attorneys with 1,000 hours of recorded conversations, many in a foreign language, including talks between Hamid Hayat and a government informant — an apparently blatant attempt to force defense attorneys into requesting a delay. But the Hayats’ lawyers stuck to the February 14 trial date by finding volunteers to review and translate the recordings. The defendants are being tried at the same time before different juries in Burrell’s courtroom.

So far, prosecutors have shown parts of the FBI’s videotaped interrogation of Hamid Hayat, who admits that he was trained to attack U.S. locations. They’ve also presented transcripts of conversations between Hayat and the informant, Naseem Khan, in which Hayat espouses jihadist sentiments.

Mojaddidi told the Weekly, and has said in court, that Hayat gave contradictory information about the camps during the FBI interrogations, often responding with “yes” or “no” answers to leading questions. She also said that Khan, who received $250,000 for his informant work, acted as the anti-American instigator in the conversations with her client, and that the details of these chats don’t match what Hayat later told the FBI.

“Under different circumstances, he said different things,” said Mojaddidi, whose client faces more than 30 years in prison if convicted.

While Hayat allegedly attended the camps so he could wage jihad here, authorities never uncovered any evidence of planned attacks. Curiously, government officials released an affidavit after Hayat’s arrest alleging that he received training to attack hospitals and food stores, then later claimed the affidavit was a draft and issued a new version without those harrowing details.

The trial is expected to last nine weeks.

LA Weekly