ATLANTA – A 23-year-old man representing himself in court on charges of aiding overseas terror groups said in his opening statement Tuesday that his online remarks about joining a jihad were "empty talk."
Ehsanul Islam Sadequee seemed nervous as he approached the podium at the center of the courtroom. He opened with a quick prayer, then told the jury he usually goes by the nickname Shifa, which means "cure."
Only then did he launch into the heart of his defense, saying his online talk did not amount to anything.
"There was a lot of talk about doing a lot of things," he said. "But no one in fact did anything."
Sadequee faces up to 60 years in prison on four counts that he conspired to aid overseas terror groups, sent homemade videos of Washington landmarks to overseas contacts and went to Bangladesh to pursue "violent jihad."
He earlier dismissed his two defense attorneys against the wishes of his family. As he spoke Tuesday, sometimes rambling, sometimes haltingly, his mother Shirin wept quietly from the third row, whispering verses from the Quran.
Sadequee's move echoed the decision by his suspected cohort, Syed Haris Ahmed, who delivered his own closing statements at his trial in June. Ahmed turned his arguments into a 45-minute lesson on Islam.
Ahmed was convicted in June and could face 15 years in prison on charges that he helped film the national landmarks with Sadequee and trekked to Pakistan to try to join a terror group there.
Sadequee faces stiffer charges. Prosecutors say he began lighting up online chat boards frequented by Islamic militants with messages about joining the Taliban shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when Sadequee was about 15.
By 2004, they say he had delved deeper into Web forums devoted to supporters of jihad and talked about how he could "do more than just type online," said assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney. He and Ahmed — both U.S. citizens — linked up around that time.
Investigators say the two took a bus to Toronto in March 2005 and met with at least three other targets of a federal investigation into online chat about potential targets in the U.S.
A month later, the pair drove Ahmed's pickup truck to Washington to shoot 62 choppy clips of U.S. landmarks and other sites, including a fuel depot and a Masonic Temple in northern Virginia, authorities said.
Sadequee sent at least two of the clips — which prosecutors say are "casing videos" — to an overseas contact days after he returned, authorities said, disguising them as "jimmy's 13th birthday party" and "volleyball contest."
In August 2005, McBurney said Sadequee "wanted to join the front lines" and traveled to Bangladesh. He got married shortly after he arrived, but authorities say he also had another mission: To try to link up with terror groups.
They say he communicated with Ahmed and other suspected terrorists, including Mirsad Bektasevic, a Balkan-born Swede who was convicted in 2007 of planning to blow up a European target to force the pullout of foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's no bomb throwing, no shooting, no dead bodies," said McBurney, who later evoked images of the Sept. 11 attacks. "The law allows the government to stop the plan before someone enrolls in flight school."
Sadequee was arrested in Bangladesh in 2006 and has been in federal custody ever since. His family and supporters, meanwhile, have waged an online campaign at freeshifa.com and crowded the courtroom during the trial.
"I'm praying for my son to be free," said Sadequee's mother, breaking into tears. "They're saying my son did this, but he was only a child."
Sadequee, sporting a gray tunic and a bushy beard, told jurors during his 14-minute opening that he "became very close online" to Web contacts, but never met them in person.
He said he went to Bangladesh to get married but had no ulterior motive. And he questioned accusations that he helped mastermind a plot.
"If everything is a question mark, can there be a plan?"
And then he abruptly stopped talking.
"I'm not a lawyer," he said, with a slight shrug. "Basically, this is my opening."