Two ex-CIA officers, a retired brigadier general and a Muslim cleric are part of a team of defense experts who could help a federal judge decide the punishment for a pair of North Jersey men convicted of conspiring to join a terrorist group to commit murder and mayhem overseas.
The list of advisers includes psychiatrists and psychologists, among them a consultant on the government’s side who figured prominently in the cases of a would-be presidential assassin and the only person tried and convicted in a U.S. court on charges of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The dueling experts could influence how long Mohamed Mahmood Alessa of North Bergen and Carlos Eduardo Almonte of Elmwood Park will spend in prison. Alessa, 23, and Almonte, 26, each face up to life after pleading guilty in March 2011 to conspiring to murder non-Muslims outside the United States. They were arrested by the FBI at John F. Kennedy International Airport in June 2010, as they attempted to board separate flights to Egypt.
In what has become a slow, methodical process for a hearing that’s still nearly three months down the line, the advisers have completed their evaluations and are assisting the lawyers in refining their arguments. They will square off during what could be a weeklong hearing in Newark that will mark the first time in New Jersey that a panel of specialists has been assembled to try to get inside the heads of a pair of homegrown terrorists.
The hearing, which was to get under way in early February, is now set to begin April 15. U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise recently granted a defense request for more time to submit forensic reports and legal memos — due in part to damage related to superstorm Sandy.
Although federal sentencing guidelines prescribe a term of 30 years to life, under their plea deals the government agreed not to seek a sentence of more than 30 years, and defense lawyers agreed not to argue for less than 15.
The judge, however, is not bound by the plea agreement and can impose any sentence he deems appropriate. As is customary in such proceedings, neither side would preview their positions or discuss the case in advance of the hearing.
The defendants’ youth, cultural identity issues, history of bad behavior, mental health and vulnerability “to either a sophisticated law enforcement agent or the influence of a powerful cleric” are among the factors likely to play key roles in the sentencing, said lawyers who have been involved in terrorism cases.
Ironic considering the known information, added below, on the defense’s cleric. He should have no influence on this or any other case.
Given their clients’ acknowledgement of guilt, the defense will raise various mitigating factors to try to convince the judge they are not “hard-core terrorists” who should be locked away for life, said Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., one of the defense lawyers in the case of five men convicted in 2007 of plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base.
“Maybe there are things in their upbringing or their background that psychologically made them weak and vulnerable at a particular time, or explain why they developed this state of mind,” Cipparone said.
“If you are a hard-core terrorist, the courts and the Congress — in terms of the sentencing guidelines — look at you as if you are essentially hopeless in terms of … rehabilitation,” he said. “Or, put more directly, once a terrorist, always a terrorist. You’re always going to be a recidivist because it’s ideologically based. And that may be one of the things the defense will try to counter.”
Still, the prosecution can be expected to press for a stiff sentence, said Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who won the convictions of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and 11 others for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and for planning a series of attacks against New York City landmarks.
“There’s no more important offense that we prosecute than terrorism,” he said, “and if you’re not going to give terrorists the top of the [penalty] range, who should get the top of the range?”
“If I were the government, I’d be arguing, look, under the guidelines these guys should be getting life. We’ve already given them a bargain by topping them out at 30 years. The thought that they should now be sliced down to 15 should be something that isn’t even considered,” he said.
Advising prosecutors as they prepare for the sentencing are Barry A. Katz, a Livingston psychologist, and Raymond F. Patterson, a Washington-based psychiatrist.
Patterson has testified as a government witness in its efforts to block the release from a mental hospital of John W. Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and three others. He also evaluated Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th terrorist, who was arrested less than a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and later pleaded guilty for his role in the plot.
Alessa — an American citizen of Palestinian descent who was born in Jersey City — and Almonte — a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic who converted to Islam — have admitted that when they were arrested, they had intended to travel to Somalia. There, they said, they would fight with Al Shabaab, an armed insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaida that has recruited more than 20 Americans in recent years.
During the investigation, the two men were secretly recorded by an undercover officer talking about beheading Americans and sending them home in body bags. Alessa said he would start killing non-believers of Islam at home if he were unable to do so abroad.
Their arrests focused a spotlight on the problem of homegrown terrorism just a month after a failed car-bombing attempt in Times Square and seven months after a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in which 13 people were killed and 29 wounded.
“I’ll do twice what he did,” Alessa boasted, referring to the carnage left by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim of Palestinian descent and an Army psychiatrist who has been charged with gunning down soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood in November 2009.
“My soul cannot rest until I shed blood,” Alessa said, according to government transcripts. “I wanna, like, be the world’s known terrorist.”
Defense attorneys also have tapped Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim cleric, to shed light on the pressures exerted on young Muslim men and the ways in which they are targeted with jihadist propaganda.
Read it all. And thanks to the reader who commented on the imam which prompted us to take a second look at just who the imam is. It turns out the defense’s imam is on the U.S. terror watch list!
Qadhi’s Ilmquest media company had been selling more than a dozen audio CD sets by al-Qaeda cleric Aulaqi, even after the cleric had been tied to the Ft. Hood shootings (the post included a screen shot of Ilmquest’s Aulaqi products — all since removed from the Ilmquest website). Aulaqi’s sermons have also recently been sold at Al Maghrib seminars. These sales of Aulaqi’s sermons continued while Qadhi criticized Aulaqi on his MuslimMatters website.
Additionally, Qadhi has been one of the most outspoken advocates for convicted “Virginia jihad network leader” Abu Al-Tamimi, and his MuslimMatters website openly champions the cause of captured al-Qaeda operative Aafia Siddiqui.
Qadhi has not reserved his special brand of hate just for infidels. In 2006, Qadhi took to the AlMaghrib online forum to denounce prominent Sunni Islamic scholar Sheikh Alawi al-Maliki as a polytheist (and thus deserving of condemnation to hell). After Muslim bloggers began calling for a boycott of AlMaghrib in response to Qadhi’s takfiri ideology, the post quickly disappeared from the AlMaghrib forum.
And just last April, the UK-based Islamic group Quilliam Foundation issued an alert noting Qadhi’s anti-Jewish tirade, and also noting statements he had made attacking Shia Islam as “the most lying sect of Islam,” including: “The Shias are allowed to lie and it is their religion to lie.”
He’s also anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti pretty much everything that is not ruled by Islamic sharia as we noted in Texas-based AlMaghrib Institute advocates sharia law to students:
Yasir Qadhi, the institute’s dean of academics, said that the tradition from Islam’s prophet could be seen in the events of Egypt and the coming reckoning for inhuman, non-Muslim states.
As part of a TV series named the “Fundamentals of Faith,” which was broadcast on the popular British Muslim TV ‘Islam Channel,’ Qadhi showed his contempt for all other systems of thought besides Islam.
“This type of thinking is clear kufr, clear disbelief, to believe that you know better, or any system of government knows better, any democracy, or any… whether it be communism or socialism, any type of philosophy is better than Islam, or it is allowed legitimately, it is allowed to follow this system, this is a profession of the fact that you believe that Allah is not All-Knowledgeable,” Qadhi told TV viewers. “To believe that it is permissible to follow a way of life, to follow a system of laws other than the Shariah, negates one’s testimony of Islam.”
“No supreme court, no system of government, no democracy where they vote. Can you believe it, a group of people coming together and voting, and the majority vote will then be the law of the land? What gives you the right to prohibit something or allow something?” Qadhi said.