ATLANTA – A former Georgia Tech student whom prosecutors called "one step removed from the bomb-throwers" was convicted Wednesday of plotting to aid a terrorist group by videotaping landmarks around Washington, D.C.
U.S. District Judge Bill Duffey found Syed Haris Ahmed, 24, guilty of one count of conspiracy to provide material to support terrorism in the U.S. and abroad. Prosecutors said he wanted to use the videotapes to gain prestige with terrorist leaders overseas.
Ahmed drove his pickup truck to Washington, D.C., in April 2005 with a suspected cohort and made videos of U.S. landmarks as well as a fuel depot and a Masonic Temple in northern Virginia.
A few months later, prosecutors said, he traveled to Pakistan on a one-way ticket to seek out Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group linked with attacks in the disputed state of Kashmir. He returned to Atlanta about a month later after abandoning his attempt to join.
Ahmed, a U.S. citizen, waived a jury trial so he could deliver closing statements last week. He could face up to 15 years in prison, but Duffey delayed the sentencing until the conclusion of an August trial set for a suspected conspirator, Ehsanul Islam Sadequee.
Ahmed said in closing arguments that he was "misguided" but never directly addressed the charges, instead reading nine verses of the Quran in Arabic and delving into some of the shared beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"I hope that if I deliver the message that has been revealed by Allah, the promise of protection from evil will come to me," he said.
Federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials praised the verdict, saying the U.S. should never wait for suspected terrorists to take action before trying them on terrorism charges.
"This case has never been about an imminent threat to the United States, because in the post-9/11 world we will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode," said U.S. Attorney David Nahmias.
Ahmed, a former mechanical engineering student with a white skullcap and a bushy beard, said nothing as Duffey read the verdict. But his father, Syed Riaz Ahmed, said the decision was not surprising.
"He's not guilty in the eyes of Allah, just in the U.S. law. He didn't do anything," the father said, arguing that prosecutors trumped up the charges against his son. "You think something and you are guilty of something."
Legal experts may have to wait longer to determine Duffey's reasoning. The judge sealed his written findings on grounds that it could influence the jury in the Sadequee trial.
Federal authorities said they began building a case after Ahmed and Sadequee — both U.S. citizens — took a bus to Toronto in March 2005 and met with at least three other targets of an FBI investigation.
They're accused of brainstorming strikes against targets ranging from military bases to oil refineries and talking of disrupting the Global Positioning System satellite network.
Ahmed's defense attorney Jack Martin contended it was just "passing talk" of using sophisticated weaponry, and boastful chatter from an immature student whose idea of paramilitary training was shooting paintball guns in the north Georgia woods.
Martin also sought to downplay the importance of the videos, saying one herky-jerky video of the World Bank could prove useful — "if a terrorist was attacking on a pogo stick."
"This is a silly video, amateurish video," Martin said. "It was nothing more than a childish act to achieve stature from people abroad."
Ahmed has been in solitary confinement for more than three years since his arrest, and his sister Mariam Ahmed said he is more devout than ever. She said he's read dozens of books and memorized the entire Quran.
Ahmed's father, too, praised his son's belief.
"We are proud of him because he's become a better Muslim than most Muslims in practicing his religion and trying to get more people to follow in the footsteps of the prophet," said Ahmed's father.