IMAGE: Jose Padilla
Alan Diaz / Ap File
Jose Padilla is escorted by federal marshals in Miami in January 2006. His trial began Monday.
updated 5/14/2007 1:02:10 PM ET 2007-05-14T17:02:10

The trial of suspected al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla opened Monday with federal prosecutors arguing the U.S. citizen and two co-defendants were key players in a terror support cell that provided equipment, money and Islamist fighters to extremist groups around the world.

“The defendants were members of a secret organization, a terrorism support cell, based right here in South Florida,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told jurors in his opening statement. “The defendants took concrete steps to support and promote this violence.”

Lawyers for the three defendants were scheduled to deliver their opening statements later Monday in the trial, expected to last into August.

Attorneys on both sides have spent months battling over issues ranging from torture allegations to the meaning of “jihad.” They pored over classified material and Arabic translations and traveled overseas to interview witnesses and spent weeks picking a jury.

If convicted, the three defendants could face life in prison.

Padilla, a 36-year-old former Chicago gang member and Muslim convert, has been in federal custody since his 2002 arrest at O’Hare International Airport. He was initially accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States and held for 3 1/2 years as an enemy combatant at a Navy brig, but those allegations are not part of the Miami indictment.

He was added to the Miami case in late 2005 amid a legal battle over the president’s wartime powers of detention involving U.S. citizens. His lawyers had fought for years to get him before a federal judge.

In court Monday, Frazier told the court that Padilla agreed to be recruited by co-defendant Adham Amin Hassoun as a prospective mujahedeen fighter to be trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan.   “Jose Padilla was an al-Qaida terrorist trainee providing the ultimate form of material support — himself,” Frazier said. “Padilla was serious, he was focused, he was secretive. Padilla had cut himself off from most things in his life that did not concern is radical view of the Islamic religion.”

Judge bars separate trials
Hassoun and the third defendant, Kifah Wael Jayyousi, both 45, provided other Islamist fighter recruits, military equipment and money for conflicts in Lebanon, Chechnya, Somalia and other global hot spots, often using Islamic charitable organizations as a conduit, Frazier said.

The defendants sought separate trials, but their motions were denied by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. She ruled the government had ample evidence that the three were connected in a conspiracy, with Hassoun and Jayyousi as jihadist recruiters, fundraisers and suppliers and Padilla as one of their recruits.

To prove a conspiracy, prosecutors will have to show that each of the three was involved in at least one act to provide material support to extremist groups.

Application form may be key
In Padilla’s case, a key piece of evidence is an application to attend an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan that prosecutors say he completed in July 2000. They also say it bears his fingerprints.

Defense lawyers will seek to raise questions in jurors’ minds about the authenticity of the form, whether Padilla actually completed it himself and if there might be an alternative explanation for the presence of the fingerprints.

“The crimes he has been charged with pale in comparison to the initial allegations,” said University of Miami law professor Stephen Vladeck. “This is a far cry from being a major front in the government’s war on terrorism.”

For Hassoun and Jayyousi, who were under FBI surveillance for much longer than Padilla, the keys may include the jurors’ interpretations of hundreds of phone calls intercepted with wiretaps, the purpose of various money transfers, and the meaning of items in Jayyousi’s newsletter.

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