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Alleged terrorist recruiter on trial

| Monday, April 4, 2005

To federal prosecutors, Ali al-Timimi, an Islamic scholar linked to a now-defunct Pittsburgh magazine, is one of America's worst nightmares -- a brilliant, native-born U.S. citizen who recruited for the Taliban.

To his supporters, al-Timimi is a victim of the times, a Muslim scholar and cancer researcher who is on trial for voicing his religious beliefs in a nation they say has grown increasingly biased against Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Al-Timimi, 41, goes on trial today in Alexandria, Va. Prosecutors charge he encouraged 11 young Muslims -- just five days after the terror attacks -- to go to Pakistan to join the Taliban in war against America. Al-Timimi could face life in prison if convicted on all charges, including soliciting others to levy war, inducing others to aid the Taliban and inducing others to use firearms and carry explosives.

Legal proceedings are so sensitive that U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema last week ordered jurors' identities be kept secret from everyone except prosecution and defense attorneys.

Al-Timimi's name first surfaced in Pittsburgh long before his 2004 indictment in Virginia.

An internationally known Islamic scholar who studied in Saudi Arabia, he was listed as a member of the advisory board of Assirat Al-Mustaqueem, an international Arabic language magazine published in Pittsburgh from 1991 through 2000.

The magazine detailed Muslim life in America and called for holy war against Christians and Jews. It also praised the army Osama Bin Laden assembled for the Taliban in Afghanistan and once featured an article praising Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel who took credit for last fall's bloody Beslen School massacre in which more than 340 people were slain.

Assirat Al-Mustaqueem ceased publication in 2000. Its staffers, many of whom were foreign graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh, since have scattered throughout the United States and abroad.

A representative from the Pittsburgh Islamic Center declined to comment about proceedings against al-Timimi.

In northern Virginia, the Muslim community is acutely aware of the case.

The Dar Al Aqram Center for Islamic Information and Education, the storefront Falls Church, Va., mosque where al-Timimi once lectured, posted a statement on its Web site saying it never hosted lectures about violence and was "supporting Mr. Al-Timimi's decision to refrain from public speaking." Officials there did not return a call for comment.

But at the nearby Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, where as many as 3,000 Muslims attend Friday prayers, spokesmen are not hesitant to talk. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the mosque outreach director, said al-Timimi is a brother in need in a Muslim community under siege.

Al-Timimi's supporters in northern Virginia have held various fund-raisers, first for legal costs for the 11 men charged in the so-called Virginia paintball jihad network and now for al-Timimi.

Abdul-Malik said the community still reels from the prosecution of the 11 men, only three of whom ever went to Pakistan and none of whom made it to the Taliban.

Over the last year, two of the men were acquitted. Six pleaded guilty to lesser counts, including federal firearms and explosives charges and conspiracy. The remaining three were convicted of violating the Neutrality Act in a conspiracy in which prosecutors charged the men took up arms to aid a foreign power.

Prison sentences for the nine who pleaded guilty or were convicted ranged from three years to life in prison.

Abdul-Malik said the Muslim community in northern Virginia has rallied around their families.

"About the only thing we haven't done is a car wash. Whether it is individuals soliciting people privately, dinner sales, bake sales after the prayers or an international bazaar, we've done it," Abdul-Malik said.

Al-Timimi's attorneys maintain their client's activities were protected speech and religion. But one of the men who pleaded guilty testified that he traveled to Pakistan to train with militants only after al-Timimi encouraged him to join in jihad -- holy war -- against America in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Al-Timimi's defense attorney, Edward MacMahon Jr., speculated that his client, who recently earned a doctorate in computational biology from George Mason University in Virginia, may be a victim of geography. MacMahon said authorities have been vigorous in prosecuting Muslims in the Washington suburbs since Sept. 11, 2001.

"At the Muslim Center where (al-Timimi) spoke, there were never political discussions. It was a center of learning," MacMahon said.

He insisted al-Timimi's religious teachings and writings were misconstrued. And while some might be offensive, they fall within First Amendment protections, MacMahon argued in legal documents.

During pretrial proceedings, defense attorneys fought to bar comments al-Timimi allegedly made after the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. In the Feb. 1, 2003, commentary, included in the government's indictment, al-Timimi hailed the shuttle crash as "a good omen," and a sign of the beginning of the end of Western dominance.

"These are all ideas that came to me when I heard of the accident, and hopes that I wish God will fulfill," al-Timimi allegedly wrote.

Despite the defense contention that such comments bore no relation to the charges against Al-Timimi, the judge ruled prosecutors can use the commentary in court.

"In this case, the community thinks Dr. al-Timimi is just being prosecuted because he's a Muslim," MacMahon said.

Who al-Timimi's supporters are isn't clear. A support committee has launched a sophisticated Web site and raised more than $150,000 for his defense, but those underwriting the effort are hesitant to discuss it.

"Many people in the community want to help and donate money, but they are so scared from government harassments(sic). No one is willing to come and announce his/her name to the media. Our community is in a state of paranoia," an anonymous spokesman for al-Timimi's support group wrote in response to a request for comment from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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