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Eye On Boise

Archive for April 2004

He signed on the line

Among the many web site registration forms and other minutiae presented as evidence in court on Thursday to tie Sami Al-Hussayen to various web sites, there were four documents he signed, giving various titles showing he had responsible positions.

One was a contract, in Arabic, in which Al-Hussayen signed “on behalf of Islamway.” Another was a web hosting agreement he signed as “technical manager,” apparently for the site Alhawali2.org. On a certificate to set up credit card payments over the Internet for the almawred.com site of the Dar Al Asr electronic publishing company, he signed as “president and IT manager.” On a similar certificate for the alzad.com site, also affiliated with Dar Al Asr, Al-Hussayen signed as “general manager.”

The upshot of those and dozens of other prosecution exhibits introduced Thursday: Al-Hussayen registered lots of web sites and worked on lots of server problems. The defense hasn’t objected to any of that.

Dedicated volunteer

In several of the intercepted phone calls and emails introduced as evidence this week, people affiliated with the Islamic Assembly of North America marvel at all the help Sami Al-Hussayen provides the religious outreach group, without any pay.

“We get paid, doing what we do. You don’t. You help out where you can,” an admiring IANA employee tells him in a translated August 2002 conference call.

Bits and pieces

Prosecutors this morning showed the jury bits and pieces from 58 different exhibits, mostly intercepted emails and phone conversations involving Sami Al-Hussayen and people associated with the Islamic Assembly of North America - and that was just before lunch.

Jurors’ heads must have been spinning for the early portion, as prosecutors questioning an FBI intelligence analyst about the various documents, nearly all translated from the original Arabic to English, jumped from one to the next, highlighting a sentence here, a paragraph there.

Overall, the tidbits seemed to show that Al-Hussayen was heavily involved in IANA activities, from operation of web sites to fundraising to helping plan new ventures. That’s not something either side has disputed. What’s disputed is that the government links IANA to terrorism, while the defense says it’s a legitimate, non-profit religious outreach organization.

Were his knees that bad?

A reporter for the Idaho Statesman was ejected from the courtroom by a guard on Tuesday and ordered to go home and change because he was wearing shorts – long walking shorts, but shorts nonetheless. The guard refused his offer to leave later and change clothes at the Al-Hussayen trial’s lunch break, forcing him instead to miss part of the proceedings.

Then, a couple of hours later, more than 20 high school students in shorts, tank tops and suggestive T-shirts filed in and filled the audience section of the courtroom. They were allowed to stay as long as they liked, without complaint.

Not about Al-Hussayen?

In his cross-examination of FBI Special Agent Michael Gneckow on Tuesday morning, defense attorney David Nevin asked Gneckow, “Just so we’re clear about it, that call you got from a bank employee in 2001, that did not relate to Mr. Al-Hussayen, is that correct?”

Gneckow had testified earlier that a tip from a Moscow bank employee about suspicious bank transactions was what kicked off the FBI’s investigation of Sami Al-Hussayen for possible links to terrorism.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist objected that Nevin’s question was out of order, because it didn’t address what Gneckow had just been testifying about - pictures from the Feb. 26, 2001 searches in Moscow and Michigan. The judge sustained the objection, and the question went unanswered.

A web site is a warm gun

Among the arguments both sides in the Al-Hussayen case submitted in legal documents over the weekend is one in which the government likened its legal theory behind the case to an armed robbery prosecution. Al-Hussayen is charged with providing material support to terrorists by operating web sites and funneling money to suspect charities.

“Consider a person who does not support the idea of conducting an armed robbery, and therefore does not commit the robbery himself,” prosecutors wrote, “but based upon the tug of friendship or some other reason, provides a gun to another person who asks for the gun for the purpose of committing an armed robbery. If the recipient of the gun commits an armed robbery, the donor of the gun could be held liable for knowingly aiding and abetting the crime – even if the person did not believe that it was correct to commit armed robbery. Similarly, in this case, the issue is not the person’s belief, but rather his knowledge or intent at the time that he provides the material support and resources.”

Surprise ruling

There was a surprise ruling in the Al-Hussayen trial this morning – Judge Edward Lodge ruled that the prosecution can’t introduce into evidence thousands of emails posted to a Yahoo email group but not linked directly to Sami Al-Hussayen, and also ruled that four fatwas, or religious treatises, about the religious justification for suicide attacks can’t be admitted as evidence until the prosecution has demonstrated exactly how they’re linked to Al-Hussayen. Both sides said last week that the four fatwas form the heart of the case against Al-Hussayen.

The rulings prompted a halt in the trial for the day, before the jury had heard a word of testimony. It’ll start again tomorrow, after prosecutors have reordered their witnesses to match the new ruling. That means anti-terrorism author and activist Rita Katz, who had been scheduled to testify all day today, can’t do so – possibly until much later in the trial.

The judge said the suicide fatwas, which defense lawyers say don’t represent Al-Hussayen’s views, are “highly prejudicial and would cause the jury to speculate.”

If they were later found not to be adequately connected to the defendant, their shocking content still could never be erased from the jurors’ minds, he said.

And as for the email group postings, Lodge said even if Al-Hussayen was designated as one of an undetermined number of “moderators” on the Yahoo email group about Chechnya, that doesn’t prove he ever read the postings. There must be proof that he posted the items, or took some action on them as a moderator, Lodge said.

“If it’s just that he had the title moderator, that isn’t going to fly,” the judge declared.

From the coast of Utah

Witnesses in court on Thursday in the Al-Hussayen trial included a series of FBI translators, who testified about their qualifications. Among them was Jabra Ghnein, a Kuwaiti native and professional translator and linguist who told the court his main job for the past year has been teaching Arabic for the U.S. Navy - in Utah.

“Right near the ocean,” commented Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist, drawing a chuckle from Ghnein.

That’s tight security

Monday was the 9th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, prompting extraordinarily tight security at the federal courthouse in Boise.

Federal Protective Service police officers openly displayed automatic weapons, as they have periodically throughout the trial. But to add to that, vehicles were being thoroughly searched. Officers used hand-held mirrors to examine the undercarriages of vehicles, and trunk lids were popped open. Inside the courthouse, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Fireams and Explosives used his specially trained black lab to check hallways and the courtroom. The tail-wagging dog waited with its handler in the hallway, then sniffed through the courtroom during each noon recess, before court in the morning and after the end of the day’s business.

This comes after extensive remodeling at the courthouse building, which added to security features.

What he didn’t say

At least one of the seven counts of visa fraud and one of the five counts of false statements against Sami Al-Hussayen rely on a new, post-Sept. 11 official form that Al-Hussayen submitted in 2002 to get clearance to continue his studies in the United States, which contained a new question. The form DS-157, according to court records, asks prospective entrants to “List all professional, social and charitable organizations to which you belong (belonged) or contribute (contributed) or with which you work (have worked).”

Al-Hussayen listed just two engineering associations, and not the Islamic Assembly of North America, with which even his own attorneys say he was affiliated, volunteered for, served on the board of and contributed to.

That particular form isn’t signed, but is used for supplementary information in the application process.

See for yourself

There’s been much debate in the Sami Al-Hussayen trial so far about various Internet sites and their content. Want to see them for yourself? Knowledge of Arabic would be helpful to see the full content of some, but there are also options for English. Check out the official Web site of the Islamic Assembly of North America; and islamway.com, which was described in court as “the most popular site in all of Islam.” Both have ties to Al-Hussayen.

There was also talk in court about archive.org, a non-profit Internet archive that allows people to view past versions of Web pages via the “Wayback Machine” program. The lawyers differed about the reliability of the past pages; take a look and decide for yourself.

Ups and downs

After the drama of the Al-Hussayen trial’s opening arguments on Wednesday, the first round of testimony this morning was a comparative snoozer, as an immigration official painstakingly identified various lines on various immigration forms.

During the course of an hour and half of that, in the audience section, three notepads plopped to the floor as their holders drifted off.

‘Not who he is’

Sami Omar Al-Hussayen was, in fact, affiliated with the Islamic Assembly of North America and with two Saudi sheikhs, his defense attorneys said in their opening statements this morning - but not illegally.

“Sami was not an employee of this organization - he volunteered, and he’s allowed to volunteer,” attorney David Nevin told the court.

Nevin said IANA is a legitimate, 501c3 charity dedicated to education about Islam. It’s distributed 25,000 copies of the Koran, for example.

Al-Hussayen, who comes from a prominent Saudi family, persuaded his great-uncle to donate more than $100,000 toward an IANA project to start a radio station in the Chicago and Detroit areas, Nevin said, and also put in more than $20,000 of his own money. When the radio station proved too expensive to start up, Al-Hussayen donated the money toward other IANA efforts including day-to-day operations and an Internet radio broadcast run a few hours a day from Austin, Texas.

Al-Hussayen’s great-uncle who donated the money is the president of the two holy mosques at Mecca and Medina, Nevin said. He’s also chairing a “national dialogue” in Saudi Arabia on religious issues in which one of the sheikhs is participating.

Nevin said Al-Hussayen served on IANA’s board and helped maintain its various web sites, drawing on his computer expertise, but didn’t publish articles on them himself. And he said the computer science graduate student and devout Muslim supports Muslims who are fighting in Chechnya and Palestine, but doesn’t support terrorism, suicide, or attacks on innocents, because they’re against his religious views.

“This is America, and in America you have the right to express an opinion,” Nevin told the court. “Sami is not an angry Islamic fundamentalist - that’s not who he is.”

Jury system impresses

Samir Shahat, a Pullman chemist who’s originally from Egypt, said he was impressed with what he saw after sitting through the jury selection for the Sami Al-Hussayen trial on Tuesday.

“I’m here to support Sami and at the same time witnessing the American justice system,” said Shahat, a friend of Al-Hussayen’s. “We haven’t this kind of system back home. Here they are picking out jurors, there is discussion. … It is not only one judge saying the final thing. There is discussion with this large number of people.”

As he left the courthouse, Shahat was surrounded by media, who asked him about perceptions of the religion both he and Al-Hussayen share. “Islam as a religion means peace – believe it or not,” Shahat said. “Unfortunately there is some kind of Islamophobia going on these days. I hope it will pass over.”

One safe parking lot


Security certainly was stepped up at the federal courthouse in Boise this week, as preparations began for the terrorism trial of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen. In the courthouse parking lot on Monday, under brilliant spring sunshine, there seemed to be an officer about every 15 feet.

When a local TV cameraman showed up to film some video of the outside of the courthouse, a guard stopped him, saying that where he usually works, in L.A., no photographing of the courthouse is allowed.

Fortunately, other guards quickly set the record straight – Boise’s not L.A. And though no cameras are allowed in the courthouse, let alone in the courtroom, it’s still OK to film outside.

In fact, court officials have graciously set aside prime parking for TV satellite trucks, and found a way to allow interviews in a spot that’s outside a 50-foot security zone, but still on the courthouse steps. So all systems are go.

Otter chooses Caldwell for announcement


U.S. Rep. Butch Otter launched his re-election campaign Wednesday in Caldwell, flanked by Canyon County Sheriff George Nourse, left, and former Gov. Phil Batt, right. Otter proclaimed, “I was born here. This is my roots – not only my birthright roots, but my philosophical roots.”

Unlike his last campaign, there was no big Boise announcement. Of course, that event in 2002 actually took place not in Otter’s 1st Congressional District, but in the 2nd District. The line between the districts splits Boise, but the last redistricting moved it to the west, leaving downtown to the 2nd District. Otter said that wasn’t an issue for him, as he feels like a representative of the entire state when he serves on congressional committees. Today, he’ll announce in Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene.

In the GOP primary election, Otter faces a challenge from “Big Jim” Pratt of Melba, and if he defeats Pratt, he’ll face Democrat Naomi Preston of Eagle in November.

To tell the truth

When an anti-gay-marriage computerized phone-bank message targeted the districts of a half-dozen state senators, including at least one in North Idaho, Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, denied all knowledge. He and Rep. Henry Kulczyk, R-Eagle, were the main sponsors of an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment that failed in this year’s Legislature.

Sweet said he’d heard about the phone bank, but didn’t know who was behind it. “There’s a number of nationwide groups that are watching this closely,” he told The Spokesman-Review. “The best I can do is ask around.”

Two days later, activist Laird Maxwell, who said he was acting as a consultant to Kulczyk and Sweet, admitted putting on the phone campaign.

Maxwell said of Sweet, “I told him, but he was sworn to secrecy, and he kept his word being secret about it.”

Who’s on the ballot?

Did you know that Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton are on Idaho’s primary ballot for president, along with the better-known John Kerry and George W. Bush? How about that there’s a three-way Republican primary for the state Senate seat in Kootenai County’s District 3 – and contested GOP primary races for both the House seats in that district?

See who’s on the ballot all over the state for the May 25 primary election by visiting the complete listing at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. If you scroll all the way down, you’ll find that no one’s running against outspoken conservative Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis – from either party.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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