NEW YORK – A man convicted of helping the Taliban testified at a terrorism trial Wednesday that it was his idea to create a militant jihad training camp in Oregon to recruit men from England and the United States to fight in Afghanistan, but he no longer supports terrorist causes.
James Ujaama, a Muslim convert who lived in Seattle, told a jury in Manhattan federal court that he envisioned the camp, which never came to fruition, in 1999 as a place for Muslims to get military training to fight in Afghanistan.
Ujaama was called by prosecutors as a witness in the trial of Oussama Kassir, who is on trial on charges that he helped Al Qaeda by trying to set up a weapons training post in the small Oregon town of Bly.
Ujaama, 43, was born in Denver as James Ernest Thompson before changing his name in the late 1980s when he gave up Christianity to be Muslim.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Bruce asked if he considered himself a terrorist.
"No sir," he said.
Asked if he had ever supported terrorist causes, Ujaama said he had.
"I sympathized and I have supported terrorists in the past, which was foolish. I was not thinking at that time and I wish I had not done that," he said.
Ujaama pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges that he provided material support to terrorists by trying to set up the Bly training camp and by loading computer programs onto Taliban computers during a trip to Afghanistan in 1999. He said he hopes to win leniency from a potential 30-year prison sentence by testifying.
Ujaama testified he tried to create the training camp on 360 acres of land in Oregon in 1999 and created an advertisement for it that he sent to his spiritual guide in London. He said the terrain, with small trees and rocks, and widely varying temperatures, was similar to Afghanistan.
The advertisement, which was entered into evidence, said participants would receive learn about military techniques and be trained with weapons, including rifles, and in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. It also promised training in archery, hunting and fishing, farming and animal husbandry.
"It is 100 percent legal and so are all of the activities," the advertisement said. "The land is in a state that is pro militia and firearms state, an advantage for self defense training."
Ujaama testified: "It would, in my mind, prepare Muslims, males, to go to the front line and defend the Islamic state."
But the camp never really got off the ground. Ujaama visited the property only three times, the last time with Kassir, who traveled from London expecting to find lots of weapons and young men eager to be trained, he said.
Kassir became angry when he saw nothing had materialized, Ujaama said. They fought and Ujaama left and never returned, he said.
Ujaama testified he went the following year to Pakistan, where he had gone before training briefly in late 1998 at a camp in Afghanistan that was run by Pakistanis.
During a trip to Afghanistan, he said, he sought treatment from a doctor after falling ill. After leaving Afghanistan, he said he saw a newspaper article that showed the U.S. was seeking on terrorism charges the doctor, Ayman al-Zawahiri — Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader.
Ujaama testified he was in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2001.
He testified it left him "a bit happy."
"In the beginning, my personal views was that this was in retribution for all the things that we had done bad in other places around the world to other people," he said.
He said he hoped it would be a wake-up call for the United States, where he returned in 2002, shortly before he was picked up by the FBI on a material witness warrant in Denver in July 2002.
He pleaded guilty the following year in federal court in Seattle to providing material support to terrorists in a plea deal that carried a two-year prison sentence.
When he was freed, he said he found fellow Muslims were suspicious of him, fearing he might be a government spy.
"I was very depressed. I just couldn't fit in," he said. So he violated the terms of his probation by leaving the country to live in Belize, where he was arrested in 2006 by U.S. marshals and returned to the United States.
He said he no longer believes that "violence is the solution to the problems of the Muslims in the world today."