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.
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.