For Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, the bombing of the Boston Marathon was a dark reminder of what might have been.
In 2009, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, McBurney had successfully prosecuted two young Muslim men on charges of providing material support to terrorists abroad. Acting on tips from two foreign governments, in 2006 the FBI had arrested Georgia Tech student Syed Haris Ahmed, then 21, and his friend, Ehsanul Sadequee, then 19.
McBurney, who was appointed to the Fulton bench last year, said the parallels between the Atlanta defendants and the two young Muslim brothers suspected of the April 15 Boston bombing were "chilling." In both cases, the young men were children of immigrant parents from volatile Muslim countries, said to have been drawn to Internet websites that promoted violent jihad.
In Atlanta, Ahmed and Sadequee had tapped into networks of international terrorists. Those online alliances led to their convictions in 2009. Ahmed was sentenced to 13 years in prison, Sadequee to 17 years. Both were barred from accessing the Internet in prison and for the 30 years they will serve on probation after they are released.
McBurney said that after Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, were identified as the chief suspects in the Boston bombing, he began to believe that the investigation into their actions would unfold much as the case against Ahmed and Sadequee had—with one key difference. Ahmed and Sadequee were arrested long before they had settled on a target, before they had acquired explosives or built a bomb, before the fuse was lit.
"I think it would be naive to say that Ahmed and Sadequee could never have ended up where the Boston suspects did," said McBurney. "We should feel fortunate that these guys [in Atlanta] were intercepted."
McBurney also suggested that Ahmed, Sadequee and the Boston suspects could signal "an emerging pattern" in domestic terrorism: first-generation Americans who become disaffected and then connect with Internet communities that play on that disaffection to propagate terror and violence in the name of Islam.
"I don’t say that to alarm people or vilify folks who legally immigrate to the United States," McBurney said. "But if you connect the dots, there are a fair number of folks who trace their lineage very recently to hot spots where Islamic radicalism and violent jihad are at play. … They are first-generation immigrants to the United States who have met the one-two combo of already being a part of Islam but then grabbing hold of that fringe, violent element."
So far, investigators in Boston have not publicly connected the Tsarnaev brothers to any known terrorist organizations, and law enforcement officials have suggested they were "self-radicalized." But McBurney said that as the inquiry into the Boston bombing continues, he would not be surprised if authorities discover that the Tsarnaev brothers—much like Ahmed and Sadequee—were strongly influenced by radical jihadist chat rooms on the Internet and contacts there who would have both supported and encouraged violence. Those contacts, often international, could foment terrorist acts, he said, "that are inspired by—but not directed by—the al-Qaidas of the world."
"That’s what scares the law enforcement community the most," McBurney continued, "that some day there would be another 9/11 plot where folks directed and funded by organizations with serious resources … who are born here, or immigrated here, can glide effortlessly through society, having a darker secret that is harder for law enforcement to come across until it’s too late."
Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel, who represented Sadequee and assisted him as he defended himself at his 2009 trial, said, "I’m not sure you can prosecute people on what may be the arc of their misbehavior."
"But I don’t necessarily envy law enforcement in making those decisions while at the same time protecting our First Amendment rights and our freedoms," the defense lawyer added. "It’s a difficult line to draw."
Multiple news reports have described the Boston bombing suspects as members of a family with roots in Chechnya, a largely Muslim province in the war-torn Caucasus region of Russia. The family had immigrated from Dagestan, another largely Muslim province, after successfully seeking political asylum in the U.S. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger son, was 8 or 9 when the family arrived in the U.S. His older brother, Tamerlan, was in his mid- to late teens. Dzhokhar became a U.S. citizen, while Tamerlan became a permanent legal resident who was denied a bid for U.S. citizenship.
For much of the decade they lived in America, according to the news reports, the Tsarnaevs did not appear to be overtly devout, and American schoolmates, friends and acquaintances recalled them as friendly young men comfortably grounded in American culture.
As details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ lives have emerged, McBurney said, "It clicked"—the Boston suspects were a lot like Ahmed and Sadequee.
Like the Boston suspects, the Atlanta defendants were Muslims in their late teens or early 20s whose families did not seem particularly devout. Ahmed was a naturalized U.S. citizen whose parents had immigrated to Georgia from Pakistan when he was 12. His father, who had earned a master’s degree at a U.S. college, taught at Kennesaw State University and then at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega.
Sadequee was born in the U.S. after his parents immigrated to Virginia from Bangladesh. He went to a Muslim boarding school in Canada.
The Atlanta defendants and the Boston suspects retained ties with extended family in their parents’ homelands. As a teenager, Sadequee returned to Bangladesh for high school, then rejoined family members in metro Atlanta where he volunteered at a local shelter run by his sister that ministered to women, largely of South Asian extraction, who were victims of domestic violence.
Friends and neighbors would later say that both Sadequee and Ahmed appeared to have lived free from want, assimilated well into American life, and seemed incapable of even contemplating a terrorist act, McBurney said. Federal investigators found no incident in either Ahmed’s or Sadequee’s lives where they had been attacked or discriminated against because of their nationality or religion. There were no outward causes for alarm.
"They were young enough that a few years before, they were playing video games and watching TV," McBurney said. "There was not a sudden snapping. … There is a route that folks who fall prey to this follow."
‘In the caldron’
That route in Ahmed’s and Sadequee’s case, he said, was along the Internet highway.
Ahmed and Sadequee first sought to learn more about Islam and their religious obligations through sites that focused on religious education, McBurney said. But those religious chat rooms also hosted others, who, largely operating under pseudonyms, sought to lure impressionable young men to more political and progressively radical sites. "Then folks are in the caldron," McBurney said. "Their religious obligation becomes a moral duty to defend Islam, then to avenge the deaths of martyrs, then to become martyrs themselves."
An Internet link uncovered by British agents during a terrorist investigation in England in 2005 led the FBI to Sadequee. When British authorities raided the home of a London-based Moroccan cyber-jihadist known as Irhabi 007 (Irhabi means "terrorist" in Arabic) who operated propaganda and recruitment websites for al-Qaida, they found him chatting online with Sadequee. Amid graphic footage of beheadings, Muslim war casualties and suicide bombings on Irhabi 007′s computers, the British also discovered six amateur videos shot of landmarks in Washington, D.C. The videos had been shot by Ahmed and Sadequee on April 11, 2005.
McBurney called them "casing videos" during Sadequee’s trial. Defense lawyers suggested they were harmless, like thousands of others shot by Washington tourists.
One of the videos featured the Pentagon and recorded Sadequee as he said, "This is where our brothers attacked the Pentagon," said McBurney. "That’s not a tourist thing to do."
Another video featured a scrum of tourists waiting for access to the U.S. Capitol. A third depicted fuel storage tanks abutting a Washington expressway. Sharing them with known terrorists like Irhabi "was proof they had access, proof they had the chops that is currency in their world," said McBurney.
Federal investigators would eventually learn that Ahmed and Sadequee "had begun to plug deeply into a series of online forums and websites where like-minded individuals, supporters of violent jihad … talked about how they could do something more than just type online but actually provide material support" of what they increasingly perceived as a struggle for Islam, McBurney told the Sadequee jury.
By December 2001, just three months after 9/11, Sadequee had made attempts to contact the Taliban by email, McBurney said. Sadequee’s online connections also included a Bosnian Swede named Mirsad Bektasevic who also communicated regularly with Irhabi 007. When Bosnian authorities arrested Bektasevic in October 2005, he had a bomb belt, 40 pounds of plastic explosives and a small arsenal of guns and pistols, McBurney told the jury. They also found evidence on Bektasevic’s computer that he, Irhabi 007 and Sadequee had discussed moving to Sweden and establishing a branch of al-Qaida in northern Europe—a plan that never came to pass.
As federal authorities unraveled the online evidence and began tracking Sadequee, and eventually Ahmed, in the U.S., they said that the two men had communicated regularly with, and eventually visited, Muslim jihadists in Canada with whom they had brainstormed about possible attacks. Their plans included what appeared at first glance to be seemingly improbable notions such as the destruction of the Global Positioning System with a laser, bombing oil refineries and fuel-tank farms, or launching an attack on Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, according to Ahmed’s FBI interviews, which were introduced at his trial. Eighteen months after that visit, the Canadians with whom Ahmed and Sadequee met were arrested after securing ammonium nitrate—the fertilizer used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb—as part of a jelling plot to bomb the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, the Toronto branch of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or Toronto’s subway system.
The wealth of online communications also included repeated discussions about enrolling in terrorist training camps abroad. Prosecutors said that in 2005, Ahmed traveled to Pakistan where, while visiting his sister, he met with a jihadist with whom he had chatted online about joining Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, which the U.S. State Department has designated as an international terrorist organization. Sadequee left the U.S. as well, traveling to Bangladesh,
Those trips to Pakistan and Bangladesh—made after Ahmed and Sadequee planned with like-minded young jihadists in Internet chat rooms to enlist in terrorist training camps abroad and fight as mujahadeen on the front lines in Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan—formed the basis of the criminal charges against them. That desire to fight with known terror organizations constituted the conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists that led to their convictions, as did the 63 videos the two men had shot in Washington, D.C.
At Ahmed’s trial, McBurney acknowledged that the case "is one step removed from the bomb-throwers, the shooters, the improvised explosive devices." Instead, he said, "It’s about people who have entered into an agreement to support terrorism conspiracies" and organizations dedicated to terrorist acts.
At Sadequee’s trial, Omer Kamal, a Muslim of Indian parentage who was born in the U.S. and headed the Muslim Student Association at Georgia State University when he met Sadequee and Ahmed, explained the mindset that led Ahmed and Sadequee to delve into those conspiracies and the role that the Islamic websites they frequented had played in their radicalization. "Some talked about mainstream Islam," he said. "Some espoused views that are extreme or that glorify violence."
At that time, Kamal said, "The U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. The Iraq war was about to start … and I felt that the U.S. in some way was trying to dominate or colonize the Muslim world, and I was looking for answers. In the media, you only hear the American side of the story, and I wanted to hear the other side of the story."
The U.S. war on terror, he explained, "was a war on all Muslims around the world." He, Sadequee and Ahmed sought to learn whether, as Muslims, "we had to go and support people who were using violence to counter the U.S. initiatives or goals in the Muslim world and how, basically, to correct the situation in the Muslim world," including Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
At Sadequee’s trial, McBurney asked Kamal if he had ever talked with Ahmed and Sadequee about launching attacks on U.S. soil.
"We said that if, not ourselves, but if others attacked the White House or the Capitol building, it would have sent a strong message to the U.S. and force it to change its policies," he said.
McBurney said last week it wasn’t the chats or opinions they expressed online that got Sadequee and Ahmed into trouble. It was the actions prompted by those communications. "We’re fortunate that proactive law enforcement got to these guys before they got as far as the Boston guys did," McBurney said. "I don’t mean to suggest we had evidence they were going to do something on American soil. But our job is to prevent loss of life anywhere." Although at the time Ahmed was focused on fighting in Pakistan, and Sadequee was eyeing both Canada and northern Europe, McBurney said, "Any set of coincidences could have led them to focus here."
Crossing the line?
Sadequee’s attorney, Don Samuel, said that Sadequee’s Internet forays delved heavily into educational issues associated with Islam. "He was clearly educated, clearly devoted to his religion," Samuel recalled. "He wrote a lot, read a lot, translated a lot, all of which— in my view—was absolutely protected First Amendment activity."
But, the defense lawyer continued, "At some point, according to the jury, he crossed over from protected First Amendment activity to providing material support. … He did some things that were obviously inappropriate. … But he never hurt anybody, never did anything close to hurting anybody. As far as I know he never had any connection to making bombs."
Samuel acknowledged that there is a considerable gray area on a continuum that may begin with a vocal dissatisfaction with America’s political system, progress to a discussion of what to do about it, then escalate to a bombing plot.
"If you start talking about, ‘Maybe we should make a bomb?’ … you’re getting into a pretty serious gray area," Samuel said. "When you start exchanging information about making a bomb, you’ve obviously crossed the line.
"The question is what happens if you end up arresting someone who is only talking?"
In the case of Ahmed and Sadequee, "We were dealing with adolescents," he said. One of their more fanciful plans was to release a video purportedly of jihadists preparing to storm Washington on the night then-President George W. Bush was to deliver the annual State of the Union so that people would flee the city and leave Bush alone in disgrace.
"That was their master plan. We’re clearly talking about juveniles," Samuel said. "Maybe they would have gone further. But I’m not sure you can prosecute people on what may be the arc of their misbehavior. They’ve got to cross that line before they should be convicted."
Ahmed’s attorney, Jack Martin, could not be reached for comment. But in his opening statement at Ahmed’s trial and in a 2009 sentencing memo after Ahmed’s conviction, Martin described his client as somewhat shy, with a slight lisp and a fast patois, that helped to isolate him from his contemporaries in Dawsonville, where his family settled. Thirty miles from a mosque in a family that was not particularly religious, Ahmed—whom Martin described as confused and immature—had turned to the Internet, where the defense lawyer said his client fell prey to those who were propagating terror and hatred in the name of Islam.
"While it is true that Mr. Ahmed, as evidenced by email communications and his own admissions to the interrogating agents, seriously considered the possibility of joining a training camp for the purpose of defending Islam against perceived enemies … it is also clear that Mr. Ahmed never followed through with what he believed at the time was a responsibility of his faith," Martin wrote in the sentencing memo. "While there was much boastful and brash talk, as well as elaborate planning, in the end Mr. Ahmed turned away when he had his best chance to enlist in a training camp."
By the time that Ahmed and Sadequee went to trial—three years after they were arrested and jailed without bond—they had stopped trimming their hair and beards in favor of a style adhered to by the Taliban, who frowned on any barbering. They had donned Muslim prayer caps and publicly renounced the American justice system as an offense to Islam.
During Sadequee’s trial, where he acted as his own lawyer, he called Ahmed as a witness. In the colloquy that followed, Ahmed dismissed the U.S. government, among others, as a government of unbelievers that adhered to "man-made laws" rather than "the law of Allah."
"We believe the system that is working for … the arrival of the Antichrist involves the U.S. government and the media and its corporations," he said.
Superman, an iconic symbol of "truth, justice and the American way" represents the Antichrist, he said. "Superman has a weakness from the kryptonite," Ahmed said. "And kryptonite is green, and green is a holy color in Islam."
Later, in sentencing the two men, U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr. commented from the bench on his observations from months of immersing himself in the evidence and listening to Ahmed and Sadequee as they abandoned a defense in favor of preaching to the court.
"What I now have is not just a glimpse into the dark side of a terrorist cell development," he said. "What I now have is a full portrait of two men who—through their tortured interpretation of what is right in the eyes of their God and then justified in their own twisted morality—decided in the middle of this decade to join the fight, to join forces with others, and to recruit others to join your cause."
But Samuel said that by the time Sadequee went to trial in 2009, "He was losing his mind." In 2006, the lawyer said Sadequee had been, in effect, kidnapped and then spirited out of Bangladesh, where he had traveled to marry his cousin. He was hooded and placed on a private jet by U.S. authorities who flew him to Alaska, where he was arraigned on federal terrorism charges. It was, Samuel said, "reverse rendition."
Over the next three years in custody, much of it spent in isolation, Sadequee came to believe his lawyers were agents of either the CIA or Scotland Yard, Samuel said. "There was no reasoning with him," the lawyer recalled. "He was absolutely convinced, every time I talked to him, that I was going to the CIA. At the time of the trial he had no love lost for the U.S. government. Had I been treated like he had been treated for three years, it would be hard to think about this country with warm, fuzzy feelings."
Carrie Cordero, the director of National Security Studies at Georgetown University’s law school who was with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington when Ahmed and Sadequee were prosecuted, said that cases like those of Ahmed, Sadequee and the Boston bombing suspects "have been of concern to counter-terrorism officials since 9/11."
"There was definite concern about young individuals, young ethnic Middle-Easterners … going overseas, in particular, for training and then coming back," she said. "In the Atlanta case, one or both of them went overseas and were in communication with bona-fide, radical Islamists. The interesting thing about Boston is that we don’t know enough yet about what connections they had that were outside the United States that were either al-Qaida-affiliated or al-Qaida-inspired."
In the Atlanta case, arrests abroad triggered the domestic terror investigation. Without that international link, Cordero said, "it’s very, very hard to identify and learn about individuals who are here."
McBurney said that one approach that has proven effective, although it remains an anathema to civil libertarians, is "developing some profiles" based on who may have immigrated from the world’s trouble spots "where there is already an active or known jihadist presence. … That’s the best tool we have."
But, he acknowledged, "There will be false positives. That’s the reality of it."
Keeping abreast of what’s on the Internet is "an even more daunting task than trying to keep people from coming into the country," he said. "When you are fortunate enough to disrupt a plot, you try to learn anything and everything about how they met, who they met, where they went online. You start trying to build a living database. … It’s a free, open public space. Folks are free to look where they want. That includes someone with a badge. I’m pretty confident that law enforcement around the world is already doing that."
He added: "We are not required to wait until a fuse is lit to take these guys down. … If there is clear and compelling evidence that they are conspiring to do something that could result in loss of life and property, it is incumbent on law enforcement to act."