The Education of Ali Al-Timimi

Describing him as a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States, the government sent an American Muslim scientist to prison for life. But has justice been served?

A year and a half later the government charged the eleven paintball players with conspiracy “in furtherance of violent jihad.” It is not clear why so much time had elapsed before the prosecution. The government referred to the defendants as the Virginia Jihad Network and said they had been under investigation since 2000, when the paintball games began. It alleged that among the specific crimes the defendants had committed was the journey to Pakistan; the defense countered that the visit was not criminal, since the LET camps were only placed on the U.S. government’s terrorist list well after the trip took place.

“Anyone who doubts the importance of breaking up this network,” said Paul McNulty, the supervising U.S. attorney on the case, and now the deputy attorney general, “underestimates the challenge America faces in its ongoing war against … terrorism.” Six of the eleven pleaded guilty and negotiated prison terms. Kwon and Hasan, who later testified against Ali, were among them; both received eleven years but were released after less than three. At the trial of the remaining defendants, the prosecution declared that they had followed “not the tenets of Islam but a warped, paranoid view of the world.” Three were convicted and drew extended sentences. Two were acquitted. Attorney General John Ashcroft exulted at the convictions, calling them “a stark reminder that terrorist organizations are active in the United States.”

By the time Ali himself went to trial, in 2005, his case had dragged on for nearly four years. The FBI had contacted him a week after 9/11, and he met with its agents several times. Later, his house was searched, and many of his books and mementos were taken away. His passport was seized. It was no secret that his phone was routinely tapped.

Among the targets of the taps were conversations Ali had in 2002 with Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, a well-known Saudi scholar, concerning a letter to Congress in opposition to the looming invasion of Iraq. Ali composed the letter; al-Hawali signed it. A decade before, shortly after the first Gulf War, al-Hawali had been jailed by the Saudi authorities for his opposition to the basing of American troops in the kingdom for deployment against Iraq. Though many Saudis shared his position, the FBI took his jailing to mean al-Hawali was an extremist linked to bin Laden. Later, the prosecution claimed Ali’s guilt by association with al-Hawali.

But it was a weak case, as were other FBI efforts to tie Ali to terrorism. The government had made no effort to indict Ali in the paintball prosecutions, though it referred to him as an unindicted conspirator. As such, his presence loomed large: the trial prosecutors called him the “spiritual leader” of the paintball plot. But the Justice Department also offered a plea bargain to Ali, proposing to abandon prosecution of him as head of the putative conspiracy if he accepted a fourteen-year prison term. Insisting he had committed no crime, Ali refused. Only then did the government bring the full indictment, seeking to obtain through a guilty verdict a mandatory life sentence.

The prosecutor of Ali’s case was Gordon D. Kromberg, a career lawyer in the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria. Kromberg had received a commendation the year before from Attorney General Ashcroft for the paintball prosecution. The citation said he had produced “the largest number of terrorist convictions of any single case to date.”

Earlier, Kromberg had toured Israel on a United Jewish Communities mission and kept a diary, which was posted on the Internet. In it he cited “the enthusiasm of the Palestinians to use mass murder as a tool against the Israelis for no apparent end other than to destroy Israel.” These words were not directed at Ali, whose origins were Iraqi, not Palestinian, but they conveyed, for me, something of Kromberg’s attitude, in that they echoed the anti-Arab screed that Ali had heard the rabbi deliver at my son Nick’s bar mitzvah thirty years earlier.

The ten-count indictment focused on Kwon’s dinner party. It contended that Ali had provided advice and encouragement that induced the conspirators to levy war against the United States, supply services to the Taliban, acquire firearms to promote violence, and train for military expeditions against foreign states. It alleged further that Ali not only promoted the journey of the paintball players to the Pakistani camps but, in doing so, joined in the preparation of war against a friendly state, India. Going beyond 9/11, it stretched the period of the conspiracy to February 2003, when Ali publicly spoke of the crash of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia as a Salafi allegory. He described it as an omen of the imminent end of the West’s domination of the Muslim world—because the shuttle’s name evoked the year 1492, when the Muslims were expelled from Spain; because the shuttle carried an Israeli in its crew; and because parts of it fell near a city in Texas named Palestine. Objectionable as the talk may have been, however, the prosecution never linked it to the paintball conspiracy. Apparently none of the players even heard Ali deliver it.

Kromberg, in the course of the trial proceedings, stated repeatedly that Ali had urged the paintball players to fight and kill American troops in Afghanistan. Out of religious belief, Kromberg concluded, Ali was “soliciting treason.” Kromberg called Ali a “rock star,” in possession of Islamic wizardry that awed his followers, who knew little or nothing about the faith. “These young men,” Kromberg said in his opening statement, “wanted to live their lives as good Muslims, and what they understood to be living their lives as good Muslims is based on what Ali Timimi told them … This case is about what Ali Timimi told the young men who respected him, who revered him … who loved him, and most of all, who listened to him.” He used even stronger language in his closing argument, saying, “These guys couldn’t figure out how to tie their shoelaces without asking Ali Timimi.”

Ali, dressed in a dark suit and a pressed white shirt, followed the trial proceedings carefully. His mother and his wife, wearing a hijab, sat nearby. He was represented by Edward B. MacMahon Jr., a single practioner who had a small office in northern Virginia, had contributed to George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns, and belonged to the same golf club as the president’s father. Whatever his political disposition, MacMahon took the job of defending Ali seriously and won the admiration of the legal community for the ardor and intelligence he brought to the case.

MacMahon pointed out that Ali barely knew the paintball players and in the crucial weeks after 9/11 had spent no more than a few hours with them—hardly enough for him to function as ringleader of a seditious plot. He argued during the proceedings that the prosecution’s claims were heavily laden with religious prejudice, particularly citing Kromberg’s effort to discredit Ali’s statements to the FBI on the grounds that Islam authorizes believers to lie. MacMahon declared that, even if Ali presented the pursuit of jihad as an Islamic duty, he was speaking as a teacher, and at no time did his statements meet the legal standard of inciting his listeners to make war on the United States. Ali, MacMahon said, was at the bar not for his acts but for his ideas, which he had a right to hold, as unpalatable as Americans might find them.

After seven days of deliberation, however, the jury accepted the prosecution’s arguments and on April 26, 2005, convicted Ali on all ten counts.

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Milton Viorst has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (2006).

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