ALEXANDRIA, Va. – An Islamic scholar who prosecutors said enjoyed "rock star" status among a group of young Muslim men in Virginia (search) was convicted Tuesday of exhorting his followers in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to join the Taliban and fight U.S. troops.
The convictions against Ali al-Timimi (search), 41, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. But the judge left open the possibility that she will toss out some of the counts.
The jury reached its verdict after seven days of deliberations and convicted al-Timimi of all 10 counts.
Prosecutors said the defendant — a native U.S. citizen who has an international following in some Muslim circles — wielded enormous influence among a group of young Muslim men in northern Virginia who played paintball games in 2000 and 2001 as a means of training for holy war around the globe.
Five days after Sept. 11, al-Timimi addressed a small group of his followers in a secret meeting and warned that the attacks were a harbinger of a final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and non-believers. He said they were required as Muslims to defend the Taliban from a looming U.S. invasion, according to the government.
While nobody ever joined the Taliban, four of the defendant's followers subsequently traveled to Pakistan in late September 2001 and trained with a militant group called Lashkar-e-Taiba (search).
Three of them testified that their intention had been to use the training they received from the group to join the Taliban and fight in Afghanistan, and that it was al-Timimi's speech that inspired them to do so.
The evidence included a 2003 e-mail in which al-Timimi described the Columbia shuttle disaster as "a good omen" that "Western supremacy (especially that of America) that began 500 years ago is coming to an end, God willing."
"By his treasonous criminal acts, he has proven himself to be a kingpin of hate against America," U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said in a statement. "He not only wanted Americans to die, he recruited others to his cause at a time when our country was mourning the loss of more than 3,000 people who were murdered in a heinous act of terrorism."
The three followers who testified against al-Timimi have all struck plea bargains, and the defense contended they were lying in the hopes that prosecutors will reduce their sentences.
Al-Timimi's lawyers also disputed the notion that the men were his followers and contended that he merely suggested migration to a Muslim nation because it might be difficult to practice Islam in the U.S. after Sept. 11.
Finally, the defense contended the prosecution of al-Timimi was an assault on his religious and free-speech rights.
Al-Timimi was convicted of charges including soliciting others to levy war against the United States and inducing others to use firearms in violation of federal law. The firearms convictions require mandatory life imprisonment.
Defense lawyer Edward MacMahon said, "Obviously we're disappointed in the verdict. We'll file a motion to set aside the verdict and to request a new trial."
Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed to allow al-Timimi to remain free on bond pending his sentencing in July. Prosecutors had argued that federal law required the judge to immediately revoke bond when convicted of such serious charges, but Brinkema said the law allows her discretion "when there is a reasonable basis for reversal" of the convictions on some counts.
Al-Timimi last year obtained a Ph.D. in computational biology from George Mason University after completing a doctoral dissertation related to cancer research.
He becomes the 10th person convicted in the government's prosecution of what it called a "Virginia jihad network." Two were acquitted.