A Yemeni sheik and his assistant were convicted Thursday of plotting to funnel money to al-Qaida and Hamas, handing a victory to prosecutors shaken last year when the man who was supposed to be their star witness set himself on fire outside the White House.
Sheik Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad and Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed were found guilty on all but two of the 10 charges in an indictment that accused them of vital roles in a terror-funding network that stretched from Brooklyn to Yemen.
In a meeting with FBI informants in a German hotel room, the men were secretly recorded promising to funnel more than $2 million to Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group that has carried out suicide bombings against Israel.
Long prison sentences possible
Al-Moayad was also heard boasting that Osama bin Laden had once called him “my sheik.”
Al-Moayad, 56, could get 60 years in prison, and Zayed, 31, could receive 30 years behind bars.
The defendants protested after the verdict was announced, crying out in Arabic that the trial had been unfair.
Al-Moayad shouted in Arabic that jurors saw only “one half of one quarter” of the surveillance tapes that made up the bulk of the government’s case. He was rushed from the room by U.S. marshals.
“Your honor, I want another lawyer,” Zayed said in Arabic to U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. after the verdict was read. “I want another lawyer in order to defend my case because the jury did not fully study my case.”
Outrage in Yemen
The men were arrested by German police in January 2003 and extradited to the United States, where then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the arrests “bring justice to the full network of terror.”
The case caused outrage in Yemen, where al-Moayad is a well-known cleric and high-ranking member of the Islamist opposition Islah party.
During the five-week trial, prosecutors said al-Moayad supported Hamas suicide bombings in Israel and helped funnel Islamist fighters to al-Qaida in Bosnia and Afghanistan. He was secretly recorded showing the FBI informants receipts for donations that he said he made to charities acting as front groups for Palestinian terrorists.
The case was roiled in November when one of the informants who met the defendants in Germany, Mohamed Alanssi, set himself on fire outside the White House. The government decided not to use him as a witness, but the defense called him to the stand to try to undermine the prosecution’s case. He testified that he burned himself to gain more money and attention from the FBI.
Prosecution overcomes setbacks
The judge dealt prosecutors another blow when he cut some of the most potentially damaging evidence against al-Moayad from their case, including address books and a training-camp entry form tying the defendant to Islamist fighters in Bosnia and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.
But Johnson admitted the evidence at the end of the five-week trial so prosecutors could rebut defense claims that al-Moayad and Zayed had no links to terrorism before they were snared by Alanssi and the FBI.
Defense lawyers charged in their closing arguments that prosecutors had played on jurors’ fears of terrorism and tried to incite anti-Muslim prejudice.
More than 100 people have been charged with supporting terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, Justice Department officials said. Al-Moayad is among the few arrested overseas to face trial in the United States.