MIAMI – Defense attorneys in the Jose Padilla terrorism support trial are going to great lengths to suggest to jurors that jihad is not necessarily Muslim holy war and that mujahedeen could just as easily be freedom fighters as terrorists.
The meaning of words, especially Arabic words, is center stage as federal prosecutors play hours of FBI telephone intercepts involving Padilla and two other defendants charged with participating in an Islamic extremist support network.
Padilla, 36, is a U.S. citizen who was held for 3 1/2 years as an enemy combatant before he was added to the Miami terror support case in late 2005. U.S. officials initially accused Padilla in 2002 of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" for Al Qaeda in a major city, but those allegations are not part of Miami case.
The legal battle about definitions goes to the heart of the defense argument that what Padilla, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi were doing from 1994 to 2001 was not supporting terrorism, but providing humanitarian aid to oppressed and persecuted Muslims worldwide.
Prosecutors, however, must show the trio were involved in violence -- that the "jihad" they were fighting involved killing and armed struggle. Defense attorneys won one legal skirmish last week when U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke agreed to limit an FBI agent's testimony to references about "jihad" but not "violent jihad."
"That's the term the government has to prove (beyond) a reasonable doubt," said Hassoun attorney Jeanne Baker.
Hassoun and Jayyousi, both 45, were two of the principals of the jihadist support network, according to federal prosecutors, and Padilla was supposedly one of the recruits. All three face life in prison if convicted.
In one example of the language battle, Jayyousi attorney William Swor recently asked a witness who had once worked with Jayyousi at a San Diego Islamic charity whether Muslims could perform jihad in many ways other than violent conflict.
"You can perform jihad in your heart. You can perform jihad with your tongue. You can perform jihad with your pen, or your computer. Right?" Swor asked Jeremy Collins, a Muslim convert.
"Correct," Collins answered.
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, want to link for jurors these same words with acts of violence by Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. For instance, Collins at one point testified that he thought of jihad as purely defensive in nature.
"Was the World Trade Center one bombing (in 1993) a defensive jihad?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Killinger.
"No," Collins answered.
FBI wiretaps played in court for jurors contain frequent references to "brothers," which prosecutors say means mujahedeen fighters looking for a battle. Defense lawyers contend the term is a common expression among male Muslims.
"There are mujahedeen brothers and brother brothers," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier in one of many arguments about use of words. "There's more context to the word 'brother' than just a Muslim person."
Countered Swor: "They want to put in misleading evidence."
Defense lawyers also repeatedly jousted with FBI translators over how they converted the intercepted calls into English, suggesting that they used the most sinister language possible. They also noticed that sometimes they translated the Arabic "Allah" as "God" in English and other times left it in the Arabic form.
"You have to understand, it's my personal choice. I chose to use Allah. I think it's a beautiful word," said FBI linguist Joyce Kandalaft. "Allah does not have a negative connotation in this sense."
The trial, now in its fourth week of testimony, is expected to last into August.