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Detroit trial will test government

The trial is set to begin Tuesday for four accused of being involved in terror plots in the works.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2003


DETROIT -- Eighteen months after a raid on an apartment uncovered what prosecutors say was a conspiracy to support terrorist strikes in Jordan, Turkey and the United States, four men charged in the case are coming to trial this week.

The government claims the terror cell looked for security gaps at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, got fake identification to help others enter the country and recruited for a radical Islamic movement allied with al-Qaida.

The trial, set to begin Tuesday, will be one of the first for an alleged terror cell in this country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It may test the government's ability to prove accusations about terror plots in the making.

"The government has not yet been compelled to show its hand in these cases," said Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert and professor at Harvard University. "There have been a lot of press conferences and indictments, but those are not facts."

Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, Farouk Ali-Haimoud and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi are charged with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists. The indictment says they "operated as a covert underground support unit for terrorist attacks within and outside the United States, as well as a 'sleeper' operational combat cell."

A gag order prevents attorneys in the case from discussing it outside court. U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen has said the trial is expected to last four to six weeks. Jurors will be picked from a pool of 220 who already have filled out lengthy questionnaires.

The government's case will be built on a cache of documents found in the raid, including a day planner that allegedly detailed planned attacks, and testimony from terrorism experts.

A key prosecution witness is expected to be Youssef Hmimssa, who was arrested Sept. 28 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and whose photo and an alias were found on many of the false IDs in the Detroit apartment.

Hmimssa, who faces a variety of separate charges, including credit card fraud and misuse of visas, will come under close scrutiny, said Robert E. Precht, director of the Office of Public Service at the University of Michigan Law School.

"What the defense will be doing is saying that this guy is . . . someone who is trying to save his own skin," Precht said.

Koubriti, Hannan and Ali-Haimoud were arrested in the Sept. 17, 2001, raid. At the time, officials said they were looking for Nabil al-Marabh, whose name appeared on the mailbox and who later was arrested in the Chicago suburb of Burbank. Al-Marabh hasn't faced terrorism charges and is awaiting deportation to Syria, but he was to be deposed by defense lawyers before the trial.

Found in the raid, the government says, was a day planner that detailed planned attacks on an American air base in Turkey and a hospital in Jordan, as well as a videotape that appeared to case U.S. landmarks such as Disneyland in California and the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

The raid also yielded more than 100 audiotapes in Arabic that a government witness said emphasize jihad or holy war and serve as indoctrination in the Salafi ideology, which focuses on strict adherence to Islamic traditions.

Defense lawyers say the planner doesn't belong to the suspects. They have told the court the videotape appears to be an innocuous travel video.

Defense lawyers want more information about Hmimssa and his conversations with investigators. And they want to see more of what agents found when they searched a storage locker and apartment he rented.

"Inside the storage locker Hmimssa possessed materials and equipment which could be used for making counterfeit visas, Social Security cards and an immigration form," one recent defense motion said.

Koubriti, 24, Hannan, 34, and Ali-Haimoud, 22, were originally accused of fraud and misuse of visas along with Hmimssa. Ali-Haimoud is from Algeria, while the other four men are from Morocco.

The terrorism charges against Koubriti, Hannan, Ali-Haimoud and Elmardoudi were filed in August. Elmardoudi, 37, of Minneapolis, was not arrested until November, in North Carolina.

They face 15 years in prison if convicted of the terrorism count and five years in prison on another conspiracy charge. Koubriti, Hannan and Ali-Haimoud also face two other charges that carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison.

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