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Al-Qaida sleeper cell in California! Maybe not ...

In Northern California, a jury is about to hear closing arguments in a controversial case about an alleged al-Qaida cell operating in the U.S. But the prosecution has suffered several setbacks, and some critics now are wondering if the case is all that it was cracked up to be. NBC's Lisa Myers investigates. 

In the heart of California wine country last summer, the FBI and federal prosecutors warned that a trained al-Qaida sleeper cell was operational in Lodi, ready to mount attacks inside the U.S.    

“Various individuals — connected to al-Qaida — have been operating in the Lodi area,” FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Keith Slotter announced at a June 2005 press conference.

The FBI raided a Lodi home and arrested two Pakistani-Americans. Prosecutors charged 22-year-old Hamid Hayat with attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. His father, Umer Hayat, an ice cream truck driver, was charged with lying to the FBI about his son's training.

Now, the trial of the two men is nearly over, and some critics argue that the case against them is weak.

“I was embarrassed looking at [it]. I'm embarrassed today,” says Jim Wedick, a respected 34-year veteran of the FBI, who is now working as an expert witness for the defense. Wedick, a private investigator and former FBI special agent, says the four-year undercover case against the Hayats was seriously flawed and the charges overblown. He says there's no evidence the Hayats were planning any terror attacks.

“These individuals had no more to do with terrorism than the man in the moon,” says Wedick.

A law professor who is following the case agrees there are holes.

“The government may have overstated the dire circumstances going in,” says Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who tracks terrorism prosecutions. “But when they actually came to prosecute the case, it didn’t seem as dire or as strong a case when they came to the courthouse.”

Many other observers agree the case is problematic.

First, they say, the government's star witness, informant Naseem Khan, has credibility problems. The FBI paid the fast-food worker $230,000 over four years to spy on members of a Lodi mosque. Khan shocked the courtroom when he testified that he actually saw Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in Lodi in 1999.

Wedick calls that claim, “Ludicrous. Totally ludicrous.”

Khan first told the FBI in November 2001 about the supposed Zawahiri sighting. Intelligence officials widely dispute his claim, since Zawahiri was already under indictment and a wanted man in the U.S. by 1998. Prosecutors later had to admit, before the Hayats’ jury, that Khan’s alleged Zawahiri sighting was “probably not true.”

A second issue: Videotaped confessions by the two men, who speak broken English, are contradictory, confusing — even bizarre.

Hamid Hayat, the son, admitted in an FBI confession that he had attended an al-Qaida camp, but he couldn't describe it and placed it first in Pakistan, then Afghanistan and then Kashmir. He said he was just a cook at the camp, and that he only fired a few shots during four or five months of terror training.

In his taped FBI confession, Umer Hayat, the father, described a camp where terrorists wore “Ninja-turtle masks” and practiced pole vaulting in an underground compound.

The government never produced any independent evidence that the son actually attended a training camp.

“I was hoping,” says former Lodi Mayor John Beckman, “that if the FBI is going to make an arrest and make such a big deal out of this, that there would be more evidence, more of a case here.”

Prosecutors insist their case is solid, noting there are hours of secretly taped conversations with both men — and that they did confess. Now, a jury is about to decide whether that's enough.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.