MIAMI – The trial of suspected Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla opened Monday with federal prosecutors arguing the U.S. citizen and two co-defendants provided money, recruits and military equipment for nearly a decade to Islamic extremists involved in violence worldwide.
"The defendants were members of a secret organization, a terrorism support cell, based right here in South Florida," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told the jury in his opening statement. "The defendants took concrete steps to support and promote this violence."
Defense attorneys accused the government of distorting the meaning of words such as "jihad" and "mujahedeen." They argued that defendants Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, both 45, were simply assisting oppressed Muslims in war-torn regions and that Padilla, 36, was a peaceful Islamic convert interesting in studying his religion overseas.
Anthony Natale, Padilla's attorney, said the case was the product of "the politics of fear" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Political crises can cause parts of our government to overreach. This is one of those times," he said.
Natale said Padilla wanted to become an imam — an Islamic religious leader — and asked him to stand for the jury to see. "He's a young man who has been wrongly accused," Natale said.
William Swor, lawyer for Jayyousi, said that his client spoke out about anti-Muslim acts around the world and wrote about them in a newsletter, but that he never supported terrorists or violence.
"The government really is trying to put Al Qaeda on trial in this case, and it doesn't belong in this courtroom," Hassoun attorney Jeanne Baker said. "There's a lot of rhetoric, but there's no evidence."
Evidence includes hundreds of FBI wiretap intercepts translated from Arabic, boxloads of documents ranging from bank records to passports and dozens of witnesses.
If convicted of the main charge of conspiracy to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas, the three defendants could face life in prison. They also face terrorism material support charges that carry lesser sentences.
Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, has been in federal custody since his May 2002 arrest at O'Hare International Airport. He was initially accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States and held for 3 1/2 years as an enemy combatant at a Navy brig, but those allegations are not part of the Miami indictment.
He was added to the Miami case in late 2005 amid a legal battle over the president's wartime detention powers involving U.S. citizens. His lawyers had fought for years to get him before a federal judge.
A key piece of evidence against Padilla — one that ties the other two to Al Qaeda — is an application to attend an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan that prosecutors say he completed in July 2000 using the name "Abu Abdullah al-Mujahir." They also say that it bears his fingerprints, and that another alleged Al Qaeda recruit will testify that he filled out an identical form.
Padilla's lawyer said his client's fingerprints appear on only the first and last pages on the outside, suggesting it may have simply been handed to him, Natale said.
"It is a questionable document," he said.
Frazier said Padilla agreed to be recruited by Hassoun as a prospective mujahedeen fighter to be trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Padilla met Hassoun at mosques in Broward County, where both men lived, and Hassoun frequently gave fiery speeches about religion and politics.
"Jose Padilla was an Al Qaeda terrorist trainee providing the ultimate form of material support — himself," Frazier said. "Padilla was serious, he was focused, he was secretive. Padilla had cut himself off from most things in his life that did not concern his radical view of the Islamic religion."
Hassoun and Jayyousi provided Padilla and other Islamist fighter recruits, military equipment and money for conflicts in Lebanon, Chechnya, Somalia and other global hot spots, often using Islamic charitable organizations as a conduit and speaking in code, Frazier said.
Another Hassoun lawyer, Kenneth Swartz, said that prosecutors were "distorting history" and that the true purpose was to assist downtrodden and oppressed Muslims.
"This is not the war on terrorism," Swartz said. "This is about people who were trying to help."
Much evidence will concern two other suspected members of the support cell who are in custody overseas and not part of the Miami trial. Kassem Daher was described as a Canadian-based member of the cell, and Mohammed Youssef as another Hassoun recruit who helped Padilla make his way to Afghanistan.