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?

On the eve of his arrest Ali spoke at a northern Virginia mosque, though it was not the familiar Dar al-Arqam, which now was closed. “I can worship Allah just as well in a prison cell as I can outside,” he declared. But Ali was not submissive at his sentencing, and he refused the conventional course of appealing to the judge for mercy.

“My claim to innocence,” he said,

is not because of any inherent misunderstanding on my part as to the nature of the crimes for which I was convicted. Nor is it because my Muslim belief recognizes sharia law rather than secular law, as somebody might argue. It is merely because I am innocent … To accept these charges, we must believe that a solitary man who would spend his days working full-time at one of Fortune magazine’s 100 best companies and then spend his evenings and weekends engaged in cancer research for a doctorate in computational biology, an individual who has never owned or used a gun, never traveled to a military camp, never set foot in a country in which a war was taking place, never raised money for any violent organization, would be—could be—the author of so much harm … Someone who did not observe the proceeding might justifiably ask, “How then was he convicted?” The answer, of course, was “Simply out of fear” … In the end, Your Honor, I too, like Socrates, am accused and found guilty of nothing more than corrupting the youth and practicing a different religion than that of the majority. Socrates was mercifully given a cup of hemlock. I was handed a life sentence.

Ali has been incarcerated at five different locations, the most recent being the U.S. Penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia. Ziyana, his wife, has visited him several times. MacMahon has since moved on, to the defense of Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 accomplice. Ali’s appeal is being handled by Jonathan Turley, a constitutional specialist, but authorities have obstructed not only his visits to the prison but my own.

Last March 22, on Turley’s motion, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the trial court, pending final wording, to re-examine the verdict on the grounds of alleged illegal wiretaps of Ali’s calls. The order also instructed the trial judge to consider Turley’s claim that Ali was being held under unduly harsh conditions and was being denied normal attorney-client contacts. Lawyers for dozens of other Muslims convicted on terrorism charges have also cited illegal intercepts in their appeals. MacMahon, referring to possible illegal wiretaps of the paintball players, put it this way: “The case against a lot of these guys just came out of nowhere, because they were really nobodies, and it makes you wonder.”

The court order was among a series of defeats the government has suffered recently in terrorism cases. They include jury acquittals, reversals on appeal, the forced dropping of charges—and even instances of prosecutorial misconduct. Turley, in the event the wiretap strategy fails, will file further motions claiming other irregularities. These appeals all raise a basic question: whether in post-9/11 America the government, in prosecuting Muslims on terrorism charges, denies them equal protection under the law. On that question, the jury is still out.

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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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