An unusual terrorism trial got underway in Boise last week. The federal government charged a graduate student from the small college town of Moscow, Idaho with fostering terrorism over the Internet.
For the government, this prosecution shows the lengths and unexpected places it is willing to go to cut off support for terrorists, but friends of the jailed Saudi Arabian student characterize the trial as a tragic example of over-reaching.
Computer science student Sami Al-Hussayen watched intently as lawyers for the prosecution and defense presented computer slideshows, high-tech opening statements at Boise's federal courthouse. U.S. attorney Tom Moss charged Mr. Al-Hussayen with three counts of providing support to terrorists plus additional counts of visa fraud and making false statements.
"We feel real good about today," Mr. Moss said. "We feel good that we're going to trial and that this thing is finally going to get on the road and get to a jury in a few weeks."
The prosecution claims the earnest student with the short black hair and thick beard effectively has two personas. An assistant U.S. attorney told the jury that publicly, he may come across as benign and up standing, but in private his is the face of "extreme jihad." He outlined how the computer expert managed a network of Internet websites, allegedly to support the funding and recruitment of terrorists. He said a computer seized from the defendant's home contains digital evidence he uploaded onto the Internet edicts urging suicide attacks in Israel and Chechnya and provided on-line directions for enrolling in terrorist training camps.
The defense team paints a completely different picture of the 34-year-old husband and father from a prominent and wealthy family in Riyadh. Yes, his lawyer said that, Mr. Al-Hussayen did maintain a variety of general news and religious web sites, but insisted that in no way did his client support or finance terrorism. The defense attorney admited that one of Mr. Al-Hussayen's web sites featured an electronic bulletin board, where other people posted "ugly or reprehensible" statements. However, he argued it would be un-American to hold the webmaster responsible for inflammatory opinions expressed by others. Former U.S. Army counterterrorism expert Rand Lewis, now with the University of Idaho, said that this case explores new legal ground.
"I think the things we're looking at are issues relating to the Internet and what you can and cannot do on the Internet and what your responsibilities are on the Internet," he said. "That can impact not only foreign students, but also folks in the United States."
Professor Lewis says he is intrigued that this important trial is taking place in the small, western state of Idaho. He notes that juries in the rugged, individualistic state have been unkind to the government in other high-profile criminal cases. On the other hand, he said that the present political climate may yield sympathy for the prosecution.
"This makes some sense," he added. "Look at Idaho. We're a strong Republican state. Our Congressmen and Senators are strongly supportive of the Bush Administration."
Sami Al-Hussayen has lived in Idaho for five years and is a leader of the local Islamic community. The Saudi government is underwriting his defense. His arrest, imprisonment and trial continue to cause quite a stir in the rolling wheat country of northern Idaho and adjacent Washington State. His supporters have held numerous protest marches and rallies.
Egyptian-born chemist Samir Shashat prayed with Mr. al Hussayen at the local mosque. Outside the Boise courthouse, Mr. Shashat says it's difficult to believe his friend is the "monster" the government makes him out to be.
Mr. Shashat: Sami is a very good man, a father for three children. He's a man like me, like you. He believes in diversity, he believes in human rights. I don't think he plans one day to hurt somebody.
RPTR: A terrorist?
Mr. Shashat: I don't think so.
What matters, though, is what the jury of eight women and four men think. Six to eight weeks of testimony from witnesses lie ahead.