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updated 4/15/2005 7:54:40 PM ET 2005-04-15T23:54:40

This week, in Virginia, a Muslim religious scholar is on trial — not for committing acts of terror, but for allegedly encouraging others to kill American troops in Afghanistan. It's the first time since 9/11 that a religious figure has been prosecuted for his words. On June 27, 2003, nearly two years before his trial, the controversial religious leader sat down for an exclusive interview with NBC News.

Ali al-Timimi is an American biologist and Islamic spiritual leader.

Prosecutors charge that only days after 9/11, he urged a group of Virginia men to go to terrorist camps in Kashmir and train to fight Americans in Afghanistan. Some men did train and already have been convicted of terrorism charges.

Lisa Myers:  Did you ever tell these men to go abroad and join in violent jihad?

Ali al-Timimi:  "No. Never."

Myers:  Why would someone make all this up about you?

Al-Timimi:  "Perhaps certain people in the government, in a zeal to silence outspoken Muslims in North America, have pushed an investigation further than it really should go."

In the wake of 9/11, the case does break new ground.

"It's the first case in which the government has prosecuted a religious leader, as such for, essentially, his speech," says David Cole, a free speech effort at Georgetown University School of Law.

Critics say this prosecution is a troubling incursion on the First Amendment and goes too far. But others contend the case isn't about freedom of speech or religion, but is akin to a Mafia boss ordering a hit.

"It's not an accepted religious or political belief to say, 'Go out and kill somebody,'" says former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing.

To bolster their claims, prosecutors point to a message al-Timimi wrote to followers in 2003, after the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia saying, "Muslims were overjoyed because of the adversity that befell their greatest enemy."

Al-Timimi:  "I thought it was an omen."

Al-Timimi also said he believes the accident suggests Allah was punishing the United States.

Al-Timimi:  "To have the space shuttle crash in Palestine, Texas, with a Texas president and an Israeli astronaut, somebody might say there is a divine hand behind it."

When NBC pressed further, al-Timimi's lawyer abruptly ended the interview.

Al-Timimi’s defense team emphasizes that no American was ever hurt because of al-Timimi's words. Experts say to get a conviction, prosecutors must prove he intended for his listeners to actually take action against the United States.

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