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Benchmark trial of accused terror cell to begin next week

DETROIT—The government says the men are Muslim terrorists who conspired to blow up targets in the Middle East, North Africa and possibly the United States.

Defense attorneys say three of the four men are harmless immigrants caught in the wrong Detroit apartment at the wrong time with forged identity papers.

Whatever the truth, the stakes will be high when their trial begins next week in federal court in Detroit. If U.S. prosecutors lose, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department will suffer a humbling defeat in their war against terrorism. If the four men are convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, they could go to prison for 25 years.

"In a crisis like this, the government can't afford to be perceived by the public as shooting blanks," said Detroit criminal lawyer Richard Zuckerman, a former federal prosecutor.

This will be the nation's first post-Sept. 11 terrorism trial. Suspects in other cases have pleaded guilty or are still awaiting trial.

A jury of 16 is to be selected Tuesday to determine whether the three men and their alleged handler—who was arrested later in North Carolina—were a terrorist sleeper cell.

The three are: Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22; Ahmed Hannan, 34; and Karim Koubriti, 24. They were arrested six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when federal agents raided their apartment. Agents had gone there looking for Nabil Almarabh, who was on an FBI terrorist watch list.

Koubriti, who answered the door in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, said he didn't know Almarabh, who had moved out before Koubriti and his two roommates moved in two weeks earlier. But Koubriti let agents search the roach-infested apartment.

Agents found a forged passport, other counterfeit identity papers and 28 passport photos of various people. They also found a day-planner that prosecutors said contains a sketch of a U.S. air base in Turkey, notations about a military hospital in Jordan and references to an "American foreign minister."

Prosecutors said they think the reference was to a plot to kill former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was planning to visit the base. Koubriti said the day-planner and documents belonged to a former roommate, Youssef Hmimssa, 37, who was arrested several days later.

Agents also found 105 audiotapes of fiery Islamic indoctrination lectures exhorting Allah, the Muslim name for God, to kill Jews and Christians.

The men were arrested and charged in a series of indictments with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and multiple counts of document fraud. The documents charges carry maximum penalties of 5 to 15 years in prison, but if the men are convicted of supporting terrorism they could face up to 25 years.

The fourth suspect is alleged ringleader Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 36, who lived in Minneapolis and was arrested in November. Both he and Hmimssa used multiple aliases, prosecutors said.

Many of the charges are based on information supplied by Hmimssa, who turned informant and told investigators the men tried to recruit him to provide phony documents and stolen credit card numbers.

Hmimssa had been on the run from credit card fraud charges in Chicago. He turned government informant in hopes of receiving lenient treatment. He is to be tried separately on fraudulent-document charges.

Prosecutors say the other four planned to recruit, train and arm terrorists to attack Incirlik Air Base in Turkey (which the United States uses to patrol the northern no-fly zone over Iraq), the Queen Alia Military Hospital in Amman, Jordan, and targets in North Africa and possibly the United States.

They allegedly planned to obtain forged identity papers, set up safe houses for new recruits and acquire weapons to send overseas. They also are accused of planning to give money to Gamma'a al-Islamiyya and the Armed Islamic Group, which are designated by the United States as terrorist groups.

Prosecutors said Elmardoudi had a network of so-called brothers throughout Europe.

Although prosecutors haven't said the men belonged to specific terrorist groups, the indictment suggests they are Salafists, a term used to describe many extreme anti-Western terrorist organizations. The indictment also suggests the men are Takfiris, followers of a Salafist doctrine that allows adherents to drink alcohol, shun prayer and engage in other secular behavior to avoid detection.

Besides Hmimssa, their star witness, prosecutors plan to call dozens of others to testify about the day-planner, the crude drawing of the air base, the audiotapes and how terror cells operate.

The government also plans to use a statement Elmardoudi gave to police after his arrest. In it, Elmardoudi explained why he was carrying $83,000 in cash and assorted forged documents.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen has closed hearings and kept evidence under wraps. He is considering having jurors selected in private. Rosen has assured jurors that they will remain anonymous and has prohibited attorneys and prosecutors from discussing the case.

But in court hearings and legal briefs, the court-appointed defense attorneys have said the charges are farfetched and their clients are no more dangerous than Almarabh, whom agents were hoping to find at the Detroit apartment.

U.S. and Canadian authorities initially described Almarabh, a former Boston cab driver, as a close associate of Osama bin Laden and a key al-Qaida operative. He turned out to be nothing more than an illegal immigrant, and he's now awaiting deportation to Syria. It's unclear whether he will testify.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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