NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A former Navy sailor was convicted Wednesday of leaking details about ship movements to suspected terrorism supporters, an act that could have endangered his own crewmates.
Jurors convicted Hassan Abu-Jihaad, 32, of Phoenix of providing material support to terrorists and disclosing classified national defense information on the second day of deliberations.
"In the post 9/11 world, our challenge is to identify, investigate and apprehend those who would compromise our national security in the name of violent jihadism," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security. "Today's verdict demonstrates that our agents and prosecutors met that challenge with dedication and professionalism. We are all very proud of their efforts."
The American-born Muslim convert formerly known as Paul R. Hall faces up to 25 years in federal prison when he is sentenced May 23. His attorneys said they were disappointed, and that an appeal was likely.
Jurors declined comment as they left the courthouse, as did Abu-Jihaad's family members.
The leak came amid increased wariness on the part of U.S. Navy commanders whose ships headed to the Persian Gulf in the months after a terrorist ambush in 2000 killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole.
"Fortunately there wasn't an attack based on the information Abu-Jihaad passed," said FBI Agent in Charge Kimberly K. Mertz, who said she was pleased with the verdict and called the case one of her agency's top priorities.
Abu-Jihaad, who was a signalman aboard the USS Benfold, was accused of passing along details that included the makeup of his Navy battle group, its planned movements and a drawing of the group's formation when it was to pass through the dangerous Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf on April 29, 2001. The details also included statements such as, "They have nothing to stop a small craft with RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) etc., except their SEALS' stinger missiles."
"Mr. Abu-Jihaad jeopardized the lives of countless American servicemen and women and, as a member of the U.S. Navy, his conduct was shameful and deceitful," said Kathryn A. Feeney, resident agent in charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service.
Abu-Jihaad's attorney said a four-year investigation that spanned two continents failed to turn up proof that Abu-Jihaad leaked details of ship movements and their vulnerability to attack.
Federal prosecutors said he sympathized with the enemy and admitted disclosing military intelligence. But they acknowledged they did not have direct proof that he leaked the ship details.
Authorities said the details of ship movements had to have been leaked by an insider, saying they were not publicly known and contained military jargon. The leaked documents closely matched what Abu-Jihaad would have had access to as a signalman, authorities said.
Prosecutors also said Abu-Jihaad was the only member of the military who was communicating with the alleged terrorists. They cited one e-mail in which he called the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 a "martyrdom operation" and praised "the men who have brong (sic) honor ... in the lands of jihad Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc."
Prosecutors cited secretly recorded phone calls played during the trial in which Abu-Jihaad spoke of "fresh meals" and "cold meals" that an FBI informant said were references to intelligence related to military bases. A "fresh meal" referred to useful information, while "cold meal" was code for outdated intelligence, prosecutors said.
"I ain't been working in the field of making meals in a long time," Abu-Jihaad said in a 2006 call played in court Friday. "I've been out of that quatro years."
Prosecutors said the call was an admission that Abu-Jihaad provided such intelligence while in the Navy four years earlier.
Reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon, a juror called the case "difficult" and said there was plenty of debate in the two days of deliberations.
"It was a very, very difficult decision to make," said the juror, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the case. "It was not something that was clear cut. When we concluded, there was not a doubt in our mind."
Dan LaBelle, Abu-Jihaad's attorney, tried to show that many details of ship movements he was accused of leaking to suspected terrorism supporters were publicly available through news reports, press releases and Web sites. He also noted that Navy officials testified that the details were full of errors, arguing the information could not have come from someone inside the Navy.
Prosecutors say investigators discovered files on a computer disk recovered from a suspected terrorism supporter's home in London that included the ship movements, as well as the number and type of personnel on each ship and the ships' capabilities. The file ended with instructions to destroy the message, according to testimony.
Abu-Jihaad was charged in the same case that led to the 2004 arrest of Babar Ahmad, a British computer specialist accused of running Web sites to raise money, appeal for fighters and provide equipment such as gas masks and night vision goggles for terrorists. Ahmad, who lived with his parents where the computer file was allegedly found, is to be extradited to the U.S.
Abu-Jihaad, who was honorably discharged in 2002, was prosecuted in New Haven because the investigation first focused on a Connecticut-based Internet service provider. In addition to prosecutors and the FBI, investigators from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement worked on the case.