MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. citizen Jose Padilla provided the ultimate support for terrorism by offering himself to al Qaeda as a trainee, a prosecutor told a jury on Monday in the trial of the former “dirty bomber” suspect.
Padilla, 36, and two co-defendants face life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiring to “murder, kidnap and maim” around the globe and providing material support for terrorists.
The defendants were part of a Florida support cell that provided money and recruits for Islamists waging a violent international jihad, or holy war, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier said in an opening statement to the jury.
Padilla’s attorney said had no ties to al Qaeda and was wrongfully accused by an over-reaching U.S. government at a time when fear ran high, he said.
Frazier said defendants Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi provided plane tickets, sleeping bags and satellite phones to al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo and Chechnya in the 1990s.
Padilla went farther by going to an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in 2000 to train as a fighter for a group bent on destroying his homeland, Frazier said.
“Jose Padilla was an al-Qaeda terrorist trainee providing the ultimate form of material support - himself,” he said.
“Joining an al Qaeda training camp was an incredibly rare thing for an American to do.”
Padilla’s attorney, Anthony Natale, said Padilla spent five years in the Middle East studying Arabic and the Koran in hopes of becoming a Muslim cleric. “Do not be fuelled by fear, persuaded by politics,” he urged jurors.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke forbade prosecutors from linking the defendants to the September 11 attacks, which they are not accused of supporting or taking part in, and the defence also did not directly refer to them.
The FBI arrested Padilla at Chicago’s O’Hare airport in May 2002 as a material witness in an investigation into September 11, and the government said then he was plotting to set off a radiological “dirty bomb” in the United States.
President George W. Bush sent Padilla to a U.S. military jail for 3-1/2 years as an “enemy combatant” but dropped the designation as the Supreme Court weighed a challenge to his authority to do that.
The former fast-food worker and street gang member was added to an existing indictment against Hassoun, a Lebanese-born Palestinian computer programmer, and Jayyousi, a Jordanian-born U.S. citizen who served in the U.S. Navy aboard a nuclear submarine.
The “dirty bomb” plot was based on statements from alleged al Qaeda operatives who claim they were tortured before being sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The indictment does not mention that and if prosecutors do, defence lawyers will be allowed to discuss the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques and secret CIA prisons.
Natale said the government’s key evidence, a purported al Qaeda training camp enrolment form bearing Padilla’s fingerprints, was of questionable origin and bore suspicious handwriting.
Padilla sat hunched forward and showed no emotion.
defence attorneys said the defendants provided support to what they believed were legitimate charities aiding innocent Muslims “being slaughtered by the tens of thousands” in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo during the 1990s.
There were no discussions of violent acts in the 300,000 wiretapped conversations the government recorded on their telephones between 1993 and 2000, but Frazier mentioned al Qaeda 91 times during his argument, Jayyousi’s lawyer, William Swor, said.
He characterised the government’s case as “We can’t make a case against the defendants so we’re going to put al Qaeda on trial. We’re going to say ‘al Qaeda, al Qaeda, al Qaeda.”
Prosecutors plan to play about 100 of the wiretapped conversations, in which the defendants discuss family trips, sports and food. They said those were coded references to violent jihadist plots and weapons.