Witness in terrorism case has no `open' proof against suspect
BY MARTIN MERZER mmerzer@...
BRADENTON -- The government's star witness against Mazen Al-Najjar, an
alleged terrorist jailed for 1,200 days on secret evidence, conceded
Wednesday that he had no unclassified information proving that Al-Najjar
advocated violence or exchanged funds with terrorists.
William West, a Miami-based special agent and counterterrorism expert for
the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, testified that he could
not point to any ``open source'' information implicating Al-Najjar in
specifically illegal activities.
Meanwhile, at least one element of this murky case became clear:
If Al-Najjar and his brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian, were terrorists, they
were uncommonly stupid ones. Every piece of evidence introduced by the
government this week during Al-Najjar's special bond hearing has come from
the pair's own files, seized in 1995.
That includes 1,500 hours of videotaped conferences, heavily edited by the
government into a 13 minute, 51 second version shown in court Wednesday.
Al-Najjar appeared in only 20 seconds of that tape, introducing another
speaker and saying nothing provocative.
``What do I make of that?'' said David Cole, Al-Najjar's lead attorney.
``That the government has no case.''
Daniel Vara, the government's lead attorney, disagreed. He said many other
people at those conferences made militant remarks and were later shown to
be linked to terrorist groups. Al-Najjar attended and sometimes organized
those sessions, Vara said.
``He was present at those conferences,'' Vara said. ``We present our
evidence. They get to contest that.''
Cole contested it. He said the tape and other evidence offered by Vara
added up to nothing more than guilt by association. He said Al-Najjar
should be set free while the INS clarifies a visa-expiration case he is
Al-Najjar, 43, a Muslim cleric from Tampa, is expected to testify today or
He has been jailed by immigration authorities since May 1997, held without
bond after Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh heard secret evidence against
him, barring his attorneys from the session.
Authorities suspect that Al-Najjar and Al-Arian have close links to
terrorist groups. Both say they advocate Palestinian independence, but not
terrorism. No criminal charges have been filed despite a five-year
investigation. Al-Arian was never arrested.
Two months ago, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard of Miami said she was
concerned about the use of secret evidence and ordered McHugh to conduct a
more equitable bond hearing to determine if Al-Najjar can be released.
But secret evidence still may be employed later in this proceeding, again
outside the presence of Al-Najjar, his lawyers and the media. On
Wednesday, West refused to answer several questions, claiming the
information was classified.
To make its case, the government appears to be trying to prove that
Al-Najjar helped raise funds for terrorist groups. But only one segment of
the videotape illustrated any fundraising, and Cole said Al-Najjar was not
at that particular meeting.
In addition, West testified that he had no nonclassified evidence showing
that Al-Najjar sent money to or received money from terrorist groups.
West did testify, however, that he had nonclassified evidence suggesting
Al-Najjar knew that Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a onetime co-worker in a
Tampa-based Palestinian think tank, had links with Islamic Jihad.
Al-Najjar and Al-Arian ran the World and Islam Studies Enterprise and a
related group, the Islamic Committee for Palestine. The government said
both were fronts for Islamic Jihad. Shallah later emerged as the leader of
that terrorist organization.
Cole asked West for specifics. None were offered.
``It's the totality of the evidence,'' West said, hesitantly. He said
Al-Najjar was intelligent and well versed in Middle Eastern affairs, so he
must have known about Shallah's background.
West provided the same answer when asked by Cole if nonclassified evidence
shows that Al-Najjar advocated support for terrorist groups.
``Yes,'' he said, ``the totality of the circumstances.''
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