ATLANTA – Armed with a handheld video camera, a Georgia university student drove with a friend in April 2005 to Washington, D.C., and captured scenes of the Capitol, the Pentagon and other locations.
Investigators say Syed Haris Ahmed, now 24, was not a tourist but a want-to-be terrorist who wanted to send the videos of potential targets to an overseas contact. He was attending the Georgia Institute of Technology at the time.
The charges are central to a federal terrorism trial against Ahmed that is set to begin Monday, and he could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Ahmed is also accused of going to Pakistan and trying to join a terrorist group a few months later, but prosecutors are not pursuing formal charges on that allegation.
His attorney, Jack Martin, contends the federal charges are little more than "imprudent talk" and that investigators have no evidence that Ahmed, who was born in Pakistan, has committed any terrorist act.
U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, however, considers it one of his most important cases since he took charge of the Atlanta office in 2004 and contends Ahmed was at the center of a plot to carry out "violent jihad" against civilian and government targets in Washington and Georgia.
Ahmed and his friend Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, both U.S. citizens who grew up in the Atlanta area, have pleaded not guilty to providing material support to terrorists and related conspiracy counts. Sadequee's trial is scheduled to begin in August.
Federal authorities said they began to build the case after the pair hopped a bus to Toronto in March 2005 and met with at least three other targets of an FBI investigation. Authorities say they discussed strikes against targets that ranged from military bases to oil refineries and included a plot to disrupt the Global Positioning System satellite network.
A few months later, authorities said the pair drove Ahmed's pickup truck to Washington where they made the "casing" videos of the Capitol, the Pentagon, the World Bank, a Masonic temple and a fuel depot. And they were accused of discussing an attack against Dobbins Air Reserve Base in suburban Atlanta.
Authorities also said they have evidence of more than just talk.
The two were accused of receiving "rudimentary paramilitary training" in northern Georgia in late 2004 and early 2005. And officials said Ahmed traveled to Pakistan in July 2005 to seek out Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group linked with attacks in the disputed Indian-controlled state of Kashmir.
Nahmias has said there is no evidence the two posed an immediate threat to the United States, but stressed that their path could eventually have led to violence.
And prosecutors contend in the affidavit the efforts were conducted "in purported defense of Muslims or retaliation for acts committed against Muslims in the United States and in foreign nations."
In court papers, Martin has accused investigators of preying on Ahmed's devotion to Islam to coax a confession and then reneging on a promise not to arrest him if he told the truth.
Martin also has cast doubt on whether prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction. While the indictment discusses meetings, conversations and training exercises, nowhere does it say the two men obtained or tried to obtain weapons or explosives to commit terrorism.
"The case is more about talk," Martin said after a hearing.
The trial is expected to last about a week, and at the end, the federal judge will likely hear directly from Ahmed. The suspect waived his right to a jury trial this month specifically because he wants to make a public statement.
"I consider the opportunity to give the statement more important than anything to me right now," he said at a recent hearing.