NEW BERN, N.C. – Lawyers for three North Carolina men accused of taking part in a terrorist conspiracy told jurors in closing statements at federal trial Tuesday their clients broke no laws despite watching jihadist videos and debating such ideas as whether suicide bombings were justified under Islam.
But prosecutors told jurors the men were serious about attacking a U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., or targets overseas.
Lawyers for both sides delivered final arguments in a federal court house in New Bern, and jury deliberations are now set to begin in the fourth week of trial. U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan said she'll give the jurors their instructions Wednesday morning in the case involving prosecutors' claims that the men were involved in a conspiracy.
Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, Ziyad Yaghi and Hysen Sherifi all pleaded not guilty to federal terrorism charges. A fourth defendant, Anes Subasic, has declined to have an attorney represent him and is to be tried after the conclusion of the trial for the others.
Prosecutors say the men actively plotted terror attacks under the leadership of Daniel Boyd, a North Carolina man who pleaded guilty in February to charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and conspiracy to murder, kidnap and injure persons in a foreign country. Two of Boyd's sons, Dylan and Zakariya Boyd, pleaded guilty to similar charges.
Defense lawyers said Tuesday that the government's case comes down to prosecuting young Muslim men who did not commit criminal acts even though many Americans would find it objectionable that they were watching jihadist videos on computers and trading "stupid" Facebook posts in support of those fighting Americans overseas. But such actions are protected under the Constitution and the men broke no laws, the defense lawyers said in court. All the defendants are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
"These were things that were said, things typed on a computer, that is all," said Robert J. McAfee, the lawyer for Sherifi. "The government is saying whatever is in his mind is a crime ... That's against common sense."
In his closing statement Tuesday, federal prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said Boyd and the other defendants constituted a terrorist cell whose members sought to carry out violent jihad either in the United States or the Middle East. The prosecutor quoted from some of the numerous document files recovered from the computers of defendants with such titles as "Book of Jihad," ''Thirty-Nine Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad" and the "Al Qaida Manual."
Prosecutors said emails showed the men also sent each other links to Internet videos that included a beheading. Kellhofer also said the men prepared to wage violent jihad by engaging in military-style training, playing paintball and shooting firearms at a secluded farm.
Hassan did not attend the target practice, but prosecutors showed jurors a receipt for a .22 caliber, bolt-action rifle he legally bought at a sporting goods store.
Boyce said the single-shot, small caliber weapon was more suitable for shooting rabbits than waging war.
"There are Boy Scouts shooting those pea shooters all across America," the defense lawyer said. "Down East, here in North Carolina, I submit to you there are people with a lot more guns than that."
Jurors were shown a large cache of rifles, pistols and ammunition amassed by Boyd at his rural home.
Prosecutors allege that Hassan and Yaghi attempted to travel to Israel in 2007 to meet up with Boyd and his sons to carry out an attack. After the men were refused entry at Tel Aviv's airport, they traveled to Jordan and Egypt, authorities said.
The defendants' lawyers said their clients didn't travel to commit violence but to visit holy sites, relatives and — in Yaghi's case — to seek a bride.
Hassan's lawyer, Dan Boyce, asked jurors to consider why, if his client's intent was to be a suicide bomber, he bought a round-trip airline ticket.
In one of the secret recordings played in court, Boyd could be heard talking about how easy it would be to attack the families of U.S service members near the Marine base and expressing admiration for terrorist leaders who included Osama bin Laden.
But testifying for the prosecution earlier this month, Boyd and his sons denied accusations they developed concrete plans for attacks.
Defense lawyers said none of the hundreds of audio recordings and video surveillance collected by the FBI ever captured Boyd or his alleged co-conspirators discussing specific plans for an attack with the defendants now on trial.
Court security was tight Tuesday, with U.S. Marshalls turning away several family members of the defendants and also members of a Raleigh mosque who drove two hours to support the men. About a third of available seating was reserved for federal agents.
Michael Biesecker can be reached at twitter.com/mbieseck