CLEVELAND – Three Ohio men were convicted Friday of plotting to recruit and train terrorists to kill American soldiers in Iraq, a case put together with help from a former soldier who posed as a radical bent on violence.
Mohammad Amawi, 28, Marwan El-Hindi, 45, and Wassim Mazloum, 27, face maximum sentences of life in prison. Prosecutors said the men were learning to shoot guns and make explosives while raising money to fund their plans to wage a holy war against U.S. troops.
The federal jury in Toledo returned its verdict after three days of deliberations. U.S. District Judge James G. Carr did not set a sentencing date, said acting U.S. attorney Bill Edwards.
"Today's verdicts should send a strong message to individuals who would use this country as a platform to plot attacks against U.S. military personnel in Iraq and elsewhere," said Patrick Rowan, acting assistant attorney general for national security, in a written statement. "This case also underscores the need for continued vigilance in identifying and dismantling extremist plots that develop in America's heartland."
Mazloum's attorney, Mo Abdrabboh, said he was preparing an appeal.
"It's been a long, long trial," Abdrabboh said. "We're disappointed, obviously. ... We respect that the jury has spoken, but (Mazloum) has maintained his innocence from the beginning of this."
Messages seeking comment from the other defense attorneys were not immediately returned. At trial they claimed that the three defendants, who all lived in the Toledo area, were manipulated by the government's star witness, Darren Griffin.
The undercover FBI informant and former Army Special Forces soldier recorded the men for about two years beginning in 2004 while they talked about training in explosives, guns, and sniper tactics. They often met in their homes and at a tiny storefront mosque where they prayed together.
Defense attorneys noted that Griffin was involved in all conversations the prosecution presented to the jury, and that there was no evidence of telephone conversations or e-mails dealing with the alleged plot among only the defendants.
Griffin won the trust of the men by posing as a former soldier who grew disenchanted with U.S. foreign policy who was now intent on violence against America. Prosecutors said even Griffin's family had been under the impression that he had become a radical.
Griffin said most people at the mosque shunned him and that no one raised any threats until El-Hindi began talking about kidnapping Israeli soldiers. Amawi, Griffin said, asked him to help him train two recruits from Chicago for holy war.
According to one secret recording made by Griffin, Amawi said he was troubled by the loss of life in New York in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but he quickly added: "Killing Americans in Iraq is OK."
Griffin testified that he twice traveled to Jordan with Amawi and also taught Amawi and Mazloum how to shoot guns.
El-Hindi told Griffin, according to recordings heard in court, that he knew two cousins who were eager to receive "jihad training." Griffin asked El-Hindi if he was recruiting for jihad. "Oh no, I just want to take these two," El-Hindi answered, adding that he wanted to take care of them for their families.
The two Chicago-area cousins — Khaleel Ahmed of Chicago and Zubair A. Ahmed of suburban North Chicago — have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill American soldiers and face trial next year.
Amawi, El-Hindi and Mazloum were convicted of conspiring to kill or maim people outside the United States, including military personnel. Amawi and El-Hindi were convicted of distributing information regarding explosives to terrorists.
Defense attorneys said Griffin lied and manipulated the defendants by putting words in their mouths so that he could stay on the government payroll.
Attorneys for the men also questioned how the three men could have been involved in a conspiracy when they never practiced shooting guns together or watched training videos together.
Griffin testified that the three gathered in the same place just once during the two years he investigated them. He also said that he never saw e-mails from the men that talked about plotting to kill soldiers.
Amawi and El-Hindi are U.S. citizens, and Mazloum came to the U.S. legally from Lebanon. El-Hindi was born in Jordan, and Amawi was born in the U.S. but also has Jordanian citizenship.
They had blended easily into the city's thriving Muslim community.
Mazloum was a college student who helped his brother run a used-car lot. Amawi once worked at a bakery. And El-Hindi was a married father of seven.
All had moved to the Toledo area only in recent years. Still, the arrests stunned the city's Arab-American community, which has been rooted in the city for generations and produced actor Jamie Farr and entertainer Danny Thomas.