Two alleged terrorists were extradited to the United States and arraigned in federal court in New Haven earlier this month. They had never before set foot in Connecticut. So why are they being tried here?
Authorities say the state has jurisdiction because a Trumbull-based Internet service provider hosted web sites allegedly created by the defendants that sought to raise cash, recruit fighters and seek equipment for terrorists, including al-Qaida members.
“It’s really an interesting aspect of modern Internet crime,” said Jeffrey Meyer, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut who currently teaches at Quinnipiac University School of Law. “It’s an issue of the long arm of the law becoming almost infinitely electronically elastic. To the point one can sit in his living room in London and commit a crime in Connecticut.”
Meyer said this case doesn’t necessarily mean the “floodgates are opening” for prosecution of additional terrorists in Connecticut. But, he said, it does indicate that “the government has many more venue options nowadays with the use of the Internet for the purpose of criminal activity.”
The terrorist suspects are Babar Ahmad, a London computer expert, and Syed Talha Ahsan. They, along with Hassan Abu-Jihaad, a former U.S. Navy sailor, were charged with assisting the Taliban and the Chechen Mujahideen through money laundering.
Their indictment also alleges that, during a search of Ahmad’s residence in the United Kingdom in December 2003, authorities found an electronic document containing what were previously classified plans regarding the makeup, advance movements and mission of a U.S. naval battle group traveling from California to its deployment in the Middle East.
The document discussed the battle group’s perceived vulnerability to terrorist attack. Among other things, the indictments allege that Ahmad made efforts to secure GPS devices, Kevlar helmets, night vision goggles, ballistic vests, and camouflage uniforms. In addition, Ahmad and Ahsan are alleged to have recruited and arranged for individuals to travel to Afghanistan to train for violent jihad.
Abu-Jihaad reportedly leaked the U.S. Navel travel plan information to Ahmad and Ahsan, who ran Azzam Publications, a London-based organization alleged to have supported terrorists through the jihadist web site www.azzam.com. Following a trial in a New Haven federal court in 2008, Abu-Jihaad, a former Arizona resident who converted to Islam, was sentenced by the late U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz to 10 years in prison.
All three men were indicted in 2004, but Ahmad and Ahsan had remained in British custody. They contested their extradition to the United States in the European Court of Human Rights. Their principal claim was that their detention and punishment in high security United States prisons would be cruel and inhumane under European standards. Their appeal was eventually shot down.
“I think in this age of terrorism, the last place a terrorist defendant wants to be is in a United States court or even outside of our court system because of the possibility that terrorist defendants could be essentially put in the military system,” said Meyer.
If convicted, Ahmad and Ahsan could face life sentences.
While an eight-year delay between indictment and trial might hamper a more typical criminal prosecution, Meyer said that might not be the case here. He said because so much of the prosecution relies on digital documents — and not on witnesses’ memories — the prosecution’s case should remain as strong as it was in 2004.
Robert Golger, of Fairfield’s Quatrella & Rizio, was one of Abu-Jihaad’s defense lawyers for the 2008 trial, though he’s not involved with the current case. Golger expects a strong overlap between his former case and the upcoming Ahmad and Ahsan cases. All three were indicted on charges that included providing material support to terrorists.
Based on his experience, Golger expects the pretrial discovery process to be a lengthy one, particularly when it comes to classified information, which must become “de-classified” before it’s released to the defense.
“We had all sorts of issues with potential violations with classified information and I think there was a lot of channels, a lot of layers to the discovery that had to be filtered through before we got it,” recalled Golger.
“The government might be sitting on all sorts of classified information. They tend to over-classify everything, too,” continued Golger. “That’s sort of the nature of dealing in a case with an overlap between police officers and intelligence agencies… My guess is it’ll take some time before trial.”
James Glasser, a partner at Wiggin and Dana’s New Haven office, was formerly an assistant U.S. Attorney in Connecticut for 19 years. Glasser, who lead Connecticut’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks, explained that there’s a process defined by statute that allows defense attorneys to get access to documents otherwise classified in order to mount a defense.
“Sometimes… the security risk is so severe, either portions of cases will be trimmed down [so as] not to disclose classified information or [the prosecution] will forego the indictment altogether because it would mean the release of classified information,” said Glasser.
Glasser recalled at least one terror prosecution being dropped because certain information would have been released that the feds did not want made public. Though not suggesting this might occur in the Ahmad and Ahsan cases, Glasser described it as the prosecution’s “cross-benefit analysis.”
Since the classified information still needed to be sorted out in the two latest defendants’ cases, Glasser predicted it would be another six to 12 months before the two defendants go to trial in New Haven federal court.
Ahmad is slated to be defended by Terence Ward, the state’s federal defender. Ahsan’s attorney is Richard Reeve, of Sheehan & Reeve in New Haven. Reeve formerly worked in the federal defender’s office. Calls to Reeve and Ward were not returned last week.
Golger said a meeting may have occurred between the judge, the federal defender and the U.S. Attorney’s Office about who was suitable to represent Ahsan due to the complexity of this type of case.
U.S. District Judge Janet Hall presided over the two defendants’ arraignments on Oct. 6. She denied bail for the defendants.
Prosecuting the cases will be Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen B. Reynolds, who has been with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut for about 10 years and coordinates the district’s anti-terrorism program. Attorneys Sharon Lever and Alexis Collins from the National Security Division’s Counter-Terrorism Section of the U.S. Justice Department are assisting Reynolds.•