ATLANTA — As an isolated, shy teenager, the seeds of Syed Haris Ahmed’s jihadist aspirations were planted during hours in front of a computer screen in his family’s Dawsonville home.
On Internet chat rooms and Web sites devoted to Islamic Holy War, Ahmed found his religion and his identity, his attorney told a federal judge Monday.
But Ahmed, who admitted to making “casing” videos of sites in Washington, D.C., that found their way onto the computers of two terrorism suspects in London, did not conspire to aid in terrorist activities, defense attorney Jack Martin said.
Ahmed’s admitted discussions with others about attacking oil refineries and a U.S. military installation were immature acts of “talking big talk, boasting” rather than a conspiracy, Martin said.
Ahmed, now 24, has been in federal custody since his arrest in March 2006. On Monday he went on trial in U.S. District Court, charged with conspiring with others to provide material support for a conspiracy to kidnap or murder others abroad.
Testimony in the trial continues this week. If convicted, Ahmed faces 15 years in prison.
Ahmed, who was a Georgia Tech engineering student at the time of his arrest, is also charged with conspiracy to conduct a terrorist act within the United States that transcends national boundaries.
“This case is a step removed from the bomb throwers,” Assistant U.S Attorney Robert McBurney told Judge William Duffey, who is hearing the case without a jury at Ahmed’s request.
“This is a case of a conspiracy to support terrorism, not to pull the trigger or throw the bomb. His motive, whatever it may have been, is not at issue. His beliefs did not motivate this case. The facts motivated this case.”
Authorities first began investigating Ahmed after the e-mail address of a friend was found during an investigation of London terror propagandist Younis Tsouli.
Tsouli, who used the nickname “Terrorist 007,” was convicted in 2007 of incitement to commit acts of terrorism.
Investigators in the United Kingdom found several amateurish videos of locations in Washington, D.C., that the FBI traced back to a camera kept in the Dawsonville home of Ahmed’s parents.
A co-defendant in Ahmed’s case, his friend Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, communicated via e-mail and Internet instant message with Tsouli, according to evidence presented in court Monday. Some of the videos were also found on a computer of British terror suspect Aabid Khan, who was convicted of plotting to use Canada as a base for recruits for terrorist training camps in Pakistan.
In one video purportedly shot from Ahmed’s pickup truck as they drive by the Pentagon at night, Sadequee is heard to say, “This is where our brothers attacked.”
In another brief segment of video shot while driving by the Pentagon during the day, an agitated voice, allegedly Ahmed’s, can be heard repeating “take the picture, take the picture!”
Ahmed’s lawyer sought to show during his cross-examination of FBI agent Mark Richards that the videos were of poor quality and hardly of any use for terrorism planning.
Showing one choppy segment of video of a Washington sidewalk where the image jumps up and down, Martin quipped, “If a terrorist attacked on a pogo stick it might be useful.”
But Ahmed admitted in interviews with investigators that shooting the videos was part of a strategy to win favor with extremists overseas.
“You have to prove yourself, that you’re willing to take the risk,” Ahmed said in an audio recording played for the judge.
Ahmed and Sadaquee’s trip to Washington took place in April 2005. The previous March, he and Sadaquee traveled to Canada, where they met with others who shared their views of Islamic Jihad, according to court testimony.
They also discussed various plots which never got past the talking stages, including an wildly improbable idea of disrupting Global Positioning System satellites using lasers.
In e-mail and instant message communications, the alleged conspirators sound more like college students than hardened Jihadists, at times addressing each other as “man,” “dude” and “bro.”
Prosecutors allege that a March 2006 trip Ahmed made to his native Pakistan was borne out of a desire to enter a terrorist training camp.
Ahmed admitted in a written statement that he and Sadequee practiced with paintball guns in the woods of Dawson County to “prepare myself for the next phase of Jihad training.”
But Ahmed told investigators that during the trip he had a change of heart after he spoke with religious scholars who “put some sense into me.”
Ahmed, a native of Pakistan and a U.S. citizen, moved to Dawsonville with his family in 2003 after attending Centennial High School in Roswell. His father is a professor of computer science at North Georgia College & State University.
In one e-mail presented in court, Ahmed wrote of the rage he felt while watching news reports of the battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in his family’s Dawsonville home.
“I doubt it will be the last of Muslim cities to see that horrible vengeance of the bloodthirsty dragon,” Ahmed wrote. “Frankly, we need to reassess our priorities. Can we afford to delay the goal of third stage?”
The FBI believed “third stage” referred to violent Jihad.
McBurney told the judge that Ahmed’s use of coded messages represented a consciousness of guilt.Several of Ahmed’s family members looked on from the gallery as Ahmed sat stoically at the defense table, wearing a dark suit, traditional Muslim skullcap and beard. The slender, slight defendant would not stand when a court bailiff ordered “all rise” as the judge entered the courtroom.