The prosecution rested this week after spending a month presenting its case in the first terrorism-related trial to result from federal investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.
If convicted of providing substantial aid to terrorists, defendants Karim Koubriti, 24, Ahmed Hannan, 34, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 36, each face up to 25 years in prison. The four are also charged with possessing false documents.
The key evidence against the defendants is a day planner that contains sketches alleged to be of an American air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan, both supposed targets of attack. The day planner was found in the defendants’ Detroit apartment where they were arrested on Sept. 17, 2001. The defendants claim the day planner belonged to a mentally ill Yemeni who they never met and who committed suicide before they moved into the apartment, where they say they found the notebook.
The government’s case hinges on Youssef Hmimssa, an illegal immigrant and self-proclaimed “scam artist” who testified that the defendants spoke of Stinger missiles and jihad, and tried to recruit him.
The defense contends that Hmimssa, who avoided terrorism charges by cooperating with the government, would say anything to save himself. He pleaded guilty to several charges of credit card fraud and document fraud in three states. Under his plea agreement, he will serve 37-46 months. But the prosecutor could recommend that it be reduced based on his trial testimony. A sentence reduction is subject to the judge’s approval.
The defense may call a witness who could testify that Hmimssa made up the terrorist claims against the defendants because they “destroyed” his life. An attorney for that witness says the government is trying to “intimidate” him by threatening to cancel his plea agreement.
FBI agent Paul George, supervisor of the agents who raided the defendants’ Detroit apartment and arrested them, was the final witness for the prosecution. But he did not testify about the raid. George, who has years of experience tracking terrorists, testified as an expert on terrorist operations.
George said that the defendants are terrorists. He said that a video confiscated from their apartment containing images of young Arab men and women touring Disneyland, Las Vegas and New York City were filmed because they intended to attack the sites. The defendants did not appear in the video, which lasted more than two hours and also contained Egyptian television programming.
Another witness to testify was Secret Service criminal research specialist Sandra Bredemus. Last week, she said that more than $20,000 was transferred from Egypt, Kuwait, and Turkey to a Minneapolis bank account belonging to defendant Elmardoudi. Bredemus said that she doesn’t know if Elmardoudi acquired the money legitimately.
The government says that Elmardoudi, who was arrested last year in North Carolina, is the leader of the alleged sleeper cell since he had access to cash, false identification and a means to communicate overseas. These are the three key tools terrorists need to operate, according to the government. When arrested, Elmardoudi had more than $83,000 in cash and scores of false identifications. He also stole calling card numbers, which he sold and used.
Richard Tracy, a retired investigator for the Michigan Secretary of State, testified about documents confiscated from the defendants’ Detroit apartment. He said that the papers included answers to the two commercial driver’s license tests given by the Secretary of State.
Defendants Ahmed Hannan and Koubriti had taken the driving portion of the commercial license test before their arrests; it is not clear if the men ever took the written test. The prosecution did not say how the two men obtained the answers to the tests.
Also confiscated during the raid were 105 audio tapes with Ali-Haimoud’s name on them. Dr. Walid Phares, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Florida Atlantic University, testified as an expert witness about the tapes. According to Phares, the tapes are lectures about the Salafist movement, a fundamental Islamic group that advocates violence against Christians, Jews and nonpracticing Muslims. The lectures were given in Egypt, he said. Phares admitted that the tapes did not outline a specific mission, but did call for jihad and economic jihad.
The prosecution implied that the defendants Koubriti and Hannan attempted economic jihad by defrauding Titan Insurance Company. The two men were in an auto accident in 2001 and claimed that they sustained injuries that prevented them from working. But the insurance company learned that while the men were claiming they couldn’t work, they were training to get commercial driver’s licenses, according to a Titan representative who testified last week. Hannan and Koubriti attempted to collect about $2,500 each in lost wages, but the insurance company denied their claim, citing fraud, the witness said.
Hannan and Koubriti attempted to collect another $750 from Titan by claiming that co-defendant and roommate Ali-Haimoud cooked and cleaned for them while they were disabled; the insurance company also denied this claim. They submitted a similar claim on behalf of Ahmed El-Kattan, an Egyptian immigrant and Dearborn resident.
El-Kattan, 19, befriended Hannan and helped him get work at a Dearborn restaurant. He visited the defendants several times at their apartment in Detroit. El-Kattan testified that after the defendants were arrested, the FBI informed him that Hannan and Koubriti had fraudulently listed him on the insurance form as their housekeeper. Although El-Kattan was disappointed that they used his name, he said that this did not make them terrorists. Asked if the men ever spoke about terrorism or tried to recruit him, El-Kattan testified, “Absolutely not.”
El-Kattan’s experience with the defendants starkly contrasts that of the government’s star witness, Hmimssa, who entered the United States illegally in 1994 and has many aliases. Hmimssa testified that he lived with the defendants for about a month at a Dearborn apartment. He said that he left, fearing for his life, because he opposed the defendants’ extremist views. Hmimssa moved to a nearby apartment, where he said he had five passports that the defendants later stole from him. Hmimssa was arrested in Iowa in 2001. His picture appeared on false identification found in the defendants’ apartment. Hmimssa did not tell the FBI that the defendants were terrorists until six months after his arrest.
Hmimssa’s testimony may be shaken if defense attorneys call Omar Shishani to the stand. Shishani, a former suspect in another terror case who pleaded guilty last week to having $12 million in false cashier’s checks, is represented by attorney Corbett Edge O’Meara.
O’Meara claims that Hmimssa told Shishani that he implicated the defendants because they “destroyed” his life.
Last week, O’Meara and Shishani met with the FBI for an interview in which he told the federal agents that he spoke to Hmimssa at least three times while they were housed together at a federal detention center. O’Meara says Shishani asked Hmimssa if the defendants were terrorists and Hmimssa said that he didn’t know. Hmimssa also told Shishani that he accused them of terrorism because he wanted “revenge,” says O’Meara. In another conversation, Hmimssa advised Shishani to tell the FBI “anything to save yourself,” says O’Meara.
O’Meara says that defense attorneys learned about Shishani’s meetings with Hmimssa from their clients. The defendants met Shishani when locked up together at the U.S. District Courthouse, where Shishani allegedly told them that Hmimssa is a liar, says O’Meara.
Shishani, a U.S. citizen, was arrested with the bogus cashier’s checks last year and, because he also had an Islamic verse that the government thought referred to the Sept. 11 attacks, was detained for nine months. He pleaded guilty last week to having the cashier’s checks and was promised a reduced sentence if he cooperates with the government in finding and prosecuting other criminals; he is to be sentenced in August.
But O’Meara says that Shashani’s plea agreement is in jeopardy since he came forward with information regarding Hmimssa. O’Meara says that U.S. attorney Eric Straus originally promised that Shishani would receive a reduced sentence since he is cooperating with the government in other cases of illegal activity. He says Straus also said that Shishani would not be penalized for providing information on Hmimssa to attorneys for the four Arab men on trial.
However, on Monday, O’Meara said that Straus told him that Shishani’s plea agreement is contingent on his submission to a polygraph test regarding Hmimssa.
O’Meara says that last week U.S. attorney Keith Corbett, a federal prosecutor who is trying the case against the four terror suspects, asked to have Shishani submit to a polygraph test.
When O’Meara refused, he says that Straus called him and said that Shishani’s plea agreement will be nullified if he does not submit to the polygraph.
Straus did not return Metro Times’ calls.
Corbett says that the Justice Department can “use any means at its disposal” to make sure that Shishani is fulfilling his plea agreement. Corbett would not say if Hmimssa also has been required to submit to a polygraph test. He also would not say how often polygraph tests are used to ensure plea agreement compliance.
“The polygraph is not admissible anyway,” says O’Meara. “The only reason for it is to intimidate my client into changing his story. If I threatened a witness whose testimony I didn’t like, I would go to prison.”
O’Meara says he will seek a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Nancy G. Edmunds, who is presiding over Shishani’s case, to ask that his client not be required to take the polygraph. The defense subpoenaed Shishani to testify May 7. O’Meara says that Shishani will comply with the subpoena.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at (313) 202-8015 or email@example.com