*Updated NEW HAVEN - Months after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors docked in Yemen, a battle group led by the USS Constellation prepared to sail for the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. was saber rattling. Retaliation against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda for the Cole attack was anticipated. Unbeknownst to Navy leadership, a signalman on the destroyer Benfold was in direct communication at the time with a British-based publishing house openly supporting the Taliban and jihadi movements. He ordered graphic videos of Chechen rebels attacking and killing Russian soldiers.
On Wednesday, jurors convicted that sailor, Hassan Abu-Jihaad, of providing material support to terrorists and of leaking information about the Constellation battle group's deployment to people devoted to killing Americans. He faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced May 23.
Abu-Jihaad came under scrutiny after British authorities found the plans on a floppy disk in a bedroom drawer of an Azzam Publications official in 2003. Babar Ahmad directed Azzam Publications, which marketed the videos purchased by Abu-Jihaad, along with a series of related websites. The battle group plans included a tentative date when the ships would pass through the narrow Straits of Hormuz and the claim that "They have nothing to stop a small craft with RPG etc. except their Seals' stinger missiles." Finally, it said, "Please destroy message."
Prosecutors didn't say the Abu-Jihaad authored the document, but insisted its contents had to come from an insider. Defense attorneys countered that it could have come from a determined, but savvy search of the Internet.
In a statement, the Justice Department hailed the verdict as a victory against "those who would compromise our national security in the name of violent jihadism."
"Mr. Abu-Jihaad jeopardized the lives of countless American servicemen and women and, as a member of the U.S. Navy, his conduct was shameful and deceitful," stated Kathryn A. Feeney, Resident Agent in Charge, Defense Criminal Investigative Service. "However, due to the efforts of a talented team of investigators and prosecutors, Mr. Abu-Jihaad has been held accountable for his aid to the enemy. For the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, no calling is higher than the protection of our American Warfighters."
Abu-Jihaad, who was born Paul Hall and changed his name when he converted to Islam, was the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces communicating with Azzam Publications, prosecutor Stephen Reynolds said in closing arguments Monday. Azzam Publications recruited people to become mujahideen and raised money to support the Taliban in Afghanistan and Chechen rebels.
However, prosecutors do not have any direct evidence showing Abu-Jihaad communicated the ships' transit plans. That, defense attorney Dan LaBelle argued Monday, is among the case's "fundamental flaws." He dismissed Abu-Jihaad's emails with Azzam Publications as a distraction and said the plan found in England contained too many errors to have come from his client.
LaBelle hired a reporter to search the Internet for public source information about the battle group's movements, finding everything from newspaper stories about its planned departure to an MIT alumni bulletin board in which someone had posted the date the group shipped out as part of a family update.
Prosecutors counter that the information in the battle group document closely follows information that only someone in a position like Abu-Jihaad would know. For example, it referenced a stop in Hawaii to pick up Tomahawk cruise missiles that was a late change in the itinerary.
"The BG [Battle Group] mission is to hold up the sanctions against Iraq, e.g. patrolling the No-Fly Zone, carry out Maritime Interception Operations (MIO) or launch strikes," the file said. "There is a possibility that the ships and submarines that are capable will carry out a strike against Afghanistan. Main targets Usama and the Mujahideen, Taliban, etc," the document said.
Prosecutors contend Abu-Jihaad admitted his crimes in a wiretapped telephone call with a federal informant in 2006. In the call, Abu-Jihaad spoke in code about "hot meals" and "cold meals." Prosecutors say the meals refer to intelligence and Abu-Jihaad could only offer cold meals because by 2006 he had been out of the Navy too long. He was honorably discharged in 2002.
"I ain't been working in the field of making meals in a long time," Abu-Jihaad said in the call. "I've been out of that quatro years."
While deployed in the Persian Gulf in July 2001, Abu-Jihaad sent another email to Azzam Publications, praising the Cole attack as a "martyrdom operation." That attack prompted new security briefings, Abu-Jihaad wrote, and increased anxiety among U.S. sailors. The email was not punctuated and contained spelling and grammatical errors:
during the brief I attended there was one thing that stuck out like thorns on a rose bush I do not know who was the originator of this either the top brass or an american politician well here is his statement "america has Never faced an enemy with no borders no government no diplomats not a standing army that pledges allegiance to no state." Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! i give takbirs because I know deep down in my heart that the American enemies that this person describe is the Mujahideen Feesabilillah. These brave men are the true champions and soldiers of Allah in this dunya …With their only mission in life to make Allah's name and laws supreme all over this world.
A response came from "just another slave of Allah at Azzam Publications." It complimented Abu-Jihaad for his email, adding "the Kufar know that they cannot defeat the Mujahideen (the warriors of Allah). I trust you are doing your best to make sure that the other brothers & sisters in uniform are reminded that their sole purpose of existence in this duniya is purely to worship our Lord and Master, Allah (SWT)….Keep up with the Dawah and the psychlogical (sic) warefare (sic)"
LaBelle said it wasn't reasonable for someone who had leaked such sensitive information about his own ship to send such a note to the very people he allegedly provided the secrets. And he argued that most, if not all, of the material his client is accused of leaking was generally available to the public.
U.S. authorities are attempting to extradite Babar Ahmad from England to try him for conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.