Lawyers for a Muslim scholar in prison for recruiting Taliban warriors to fight against the U.S. got their court hearing last week as they try to learn whether Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki was once a government informant -- a fact that could impact their client’s 2005 conviction.
Prosecutors, though, fought the request in court and a judge expressed doubt about the defense requests.
Defense lawyers for Ali al-Timimi said Friday at a hearing in U.S. District Court in northern Virginia that al-Awlaki paid a 2002 visit to their client in which he purportedly tried but failed to get al-Timimi to recruit men for jihad after the 9/11 attacks.
Al-Timimi lawyer Jonathan Turley said government documentation of the meeting would refute the prosecution’s case that al-Timimi was urging Muslims to fight.
Court documents show defense lawyers requested the hearing to "compel the government to produce previously requested information and unlawfully withheld evidence" that would have allowed them to "impeach testimony of at least two key government witnesses."
Turley did not return a message Monday asking whether he is trying to overturn his clients’ life-in-prison conviction.
Al-Timimi played paintball to train for holy war. Several of his recruits got as far as Pakistan, training with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Defense lawyers raised suspicion about whether al-Awlaki, who has since been killed, went to the 2002 meeting as an informant to get incriminating information on al-Timimi. If so, they say, al-Awlaki’s role as an informant should have been disclosed at the trial.
The suspicion is based on newly discovered information that FBI agents involved in Al-Timimi’s case may have facilitated al-Awlaki’s return to the United States in 2002. Al-Awlaki had been imam of a northern Virginia mosque at the time of the 2001 attacks but left the country shortly thereafter.
The suspicion also is based on reporting by Fox News and Judicial Watch that found al-Awlaki was released from custody at JFK airport upon arriving to the United States in 2002, despite an active warrant for his arrest, with the OK of the FBI.
Also released earlier this year were FBI documents showing that agents observed al-Awlaki in 2001 and 2002 hiring prostitutes, but never brought charges against him.
Prosecutors say they’ve turned over everything required of them. In court papers and at Friday’s hearing, they gave no information on whether al-Awlaki may have been an informant.
Instead, they say, they are obligated only to turn over information that would assist the defense and the law gives prosecutors the discretion to make that determination.
The law “does not entitle any defendant to the disclosure of the extent and nature of the government’s investigative tools or tactics simply because he suspects that materials are in the government’s possession that might prove interesting to him,” prosecutor Gordon Kromberg wrote.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she will issue a written ruling later on the motion, but expressed doubt about the defense requests.
She said she was persuaded in part because of secret evidence the government submitted in the case, which even Turley, who holds a security clearance, has not been allowed to see.
Al-Timimi attended Friday’s hearing but did not speak, wearing a jail jumpsuit and sporting long hair and a beard significantly grayer than at his 2005 trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.