An Atlanta terrorism case which begins this week details the intricate threads behind several international terrorism investigations that were unfolding in 2005 and 2006 that had FBI officials and counterterrorism officials around the world on high alert due to multiple convergences in the U.S. and abroad.
The trial of Syed Haris Ahmed, a former Georgia Tech student, before a federal judge in a bench trial, weaves together several terrorism cases in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada and demonstrates how cyberspace has served as a key place for terrorist recruiting.
Ahmed, now 24 years-old, was arrested in March 2006, and his alleged accomplice Ehsanul Islam Sadequee was arrested in April of 2006 on charges that they provided material support to Lashkar e-Tayyiba, a Pakistani terrorist group. While Ahmed's trial will be decided by a federal judge, not a jury, Sadequee's jury case will go to trial this August.
The men's travels, the government alleges, took them to Canada in 2005, where they met with members of a Toronto terrorism cell that was under investigation by the FBI and Canadian security and intelligence services. In March 2005 the two traveled from the Atlanta area on a Greyhound bus and met with members of the Toronto group.
According to the indictment in the case, Ahmed and Sadequee discussed with the group, "strategic location in the United States that were suitable for terrorist attack including military bases and oil storage facilities and refineries. The government has also alleged Ahmed and Harris discussed planning to attack Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia.
A month after their visit to Canada, the Justice Department has contended that the two men recorded casing videos in and around Washington, DC in April 2005, "targets of potential terrorist attacks in the Washington, D.C., area, including the United States Capitol; the headquarters building of the World Bank in downtown Washington; the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia; and a group of large fuel storage tanks near I-95 in northern Virginia."
Jihadist Materials and Training Videos on Making Bombs
U.S. counterterrorism officials and federal law enforcement sources say that Ahmed and Sadequee sent the videos to Younis Tsouli, a British propaganda master who distributed jihadist materials and training videos on how to construct bombs all from his home in West London.
Tsouli was known on the Internet as "Irhabi007" or translated into Arabic "Terrorist007"; at the time of his arrest by British security services and Scotland Yard in October 2005, he was in possession of videos on constructing car bombs and the videos that Ahmed and Sadequee had filmed in Washington, DC, along with videos from Iraq and Afghanistan including brutal beheadings that circulated on websites worldwide.
Tsouli developed propaganda from Al Qaeda and other networks including for Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi and helped spread their messages on the internet. Authorities also believe Tsouli was in contact with the members of the Canadian group that Ahemed and Sadequee had met with, and what concerned some officials most was that Tsouli's propaganda was influencing numerous cells around the world and inspiring them to undertake operations.
Counterterrorism officials were finally able to close in on Tsouli days after Bosnian authorities disrupted a terrorism cell there where the suspects were caught with explosives and martyrdom messages they had recorded to send to Tsouli.
Tsouli and two other accomplices pleaded guilty in the UK in 2007 to charges of inciting terrorism on the Internet; he was sentenced to 16 years in prison and is currently imprisoned in the UK's maximum security prison in Belmarsh.
At a September 2007 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III described the links between the cases: "While examining his computer, authorities discovered the surveillance videos of the Washington targets that had been filmed by the two subjects from Atlanta. Investigators also found that Tsouli had been in steady communication with the plotters in Canada , Denmark , Bosnia , and the United States….He used his computer skills to develop a global virtual network for terrorists and their supporters. And it took a global network of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to unravel these disparate plots and bring those responsible to justice."
Casing Videos of Washington, DC
According to the indictment, during the summer of 2005, Ahmed traveled to Pakistan for the purpose of "obtaining paramilitary training and ultimately engaging in Jihad in Kashmir or elsewhere, including the United States if so requested."
At this time Sadequee traveled to Bangladesh to get married but federal law enforcement officials and the indictment allege that he carried with him the casing videos of the Washington, DC area. FBI agents found the videos in a secret compartment in his suitcase along with local maps of the DC area. Ahmed returned to the U.S. after failing to join a madrasa in Pakistan or find paramilitary training, but he kept in touch with his cousins in Toledo, Ohio.
In that case Ahmed communicated with his distant cousins Zubair Ahmed and Khaleel Ahmed, who have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight U.S. soldiers there. The indictment in the case alleged that Zubair Ahmed and Syed Haris had several phone calls in late 2004 and 2005 and discussed their need to prepare "the final war of Islam." The FBI monitored the case for some time before arresting Zubair and Khaleel in February 2007. They pleaded guilty in January 2009 and are currently awaiting sentencing.
Shortly after Ahmed was arrested in the United States on March 23, 2006 Sadequee was arrested in Bangladesh by their security services and the FBI in late April 2006. With the clock ticking and word of their arrests spreading in early June 2006, Canadian authorities arrested 17 individuals who were associated with the group that Ahmed and Sadequee had met.
Sending the videos to Tsouli may be the most relevant part of the government's charges of supporting terrorists in the case.
At opening statements yesterday, Ahmed's Attorney Jack Martin maintained his client's innocence and, according to the Associated Press, told Judge Bill Duffey, "We have an equally important responsibly to sort out the real terrorist from those who are childish, those who ever sought out a real conspiracy."
Government Says Sadequee is a Flight Risk
At a bond hearing in May, an attorney for Sadequee told the judge the video clips were short cell clips taken from his cell phone: "Mr. Sadequee can take a cell phone and take a picture of the Washington Monument and ended up sending it to a website doesn't make him dangerous. It simply doesn't."
"But that video, that casing video...to suggest, as I think the government ultimately will do, that somehow that means Mr. Sadequee was involved in going to blow up one of these buildings or was going to attack one of these buildings, there is actually no evidence to support that at all."
Sadequee has reportedly been assaulted while in detention at a Bureau of Prison's facility. According to pre-trial transcripts in his case, set for trial in August, Sadequee has allegedly attempted on several occasions to make 3-way calls to family members and others despite restrictions on his communications and other incidents of mischief such as jamming his prison door shut with magazines and papers.
While his defense has tried to get Sadequee out on bond while he awaits trial, the government has objected, noting that he is a flight risk and has long wanted to inflict harm on the United States. In a May 9, 2009 motion, the government noted, "An e-mail sent by Defendant shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to a known Taliban conduit, in which Sadequee expressed his desire to join the Taliban in their violence jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan."