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Trial opens for Islamic scholar accused of stirring up Muslim extremists

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—A charismatic Islamic scholar and respected scientist who was "like a rock star" to young Muslims denounced the United States as "Islam's greatest enemy" and induced some of his followers to take up arms against U.S. forces, a federal prosecutor charged Monday.

The accusations, made in the opening arguments of a federal trial of Ali al-Timimi, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen from Fairfax County, Va., are at the crux of the government's case, which will test key free-speech protections of the First Amendment.

Edward MacMahon, the lawyer representing al-Timimi, noted that some of his client's oral and written attacks were "obscene and offensive" but those opinions were not illegal.

"Some of it is hate speech," MacMahon told the 12-member jury. "But it's not a crime to hold these beliefs, or express them."

The case centers on two social gatherings al-Timimi held with young Muslim men, several of them converts to Islam, in suburban Virginia in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Al-Timimi was a spiritual adviser to many Muslims at an English-speaking Islamic center in Falls Church, where he was principal lecturer.

Five days after the Sept. 11 attacks, "with the World Trade Center still smoking," al-Timimi told six young Muslims over dinner that it was "time to go abroad, join the jihad and fight against the United States," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg told the jury, using the Arabic term for "holy war."

Al-Timimi predicted an "end-of-times battle" between Islam and the West, the prosecutor said, and told his followers he could help them get military training in camps in Pakistan run by a terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. The group had attacked India in Kashmir and had close ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

The young Muslims "loved him, revered him and listened to him," Kromberg said. "These guys were pumped up by what Ali al-Timimi said."

In response, at least three of the men traveled to Pakistan and received weapons training from the group, hoping to help the Taliban, according to prosecutors. But none made it to Afghanistan or attacked U.S. forces, which ousted the Taliban before the end of 2001.

Al-Timimi, who earned a doctorate in cancer research just as he was indicted, is charged with 10 counts, including soliciting others to commit crimes such as "conspiring to levy war on the United States" and providing material support to terrorist groups.

He could face life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors linked al-Timimi to a loose band of "Virginia jihadists," including some young men who used paintball games for paramilitary training. Nine men have been convicted or have pleaded guilty in that case, and several are expected to testify against al-Timimi.

MacMahon portrayed al-Timimi as a recognized computer scientist and Islamic scholar who worked briefly for Andrew Card, who's now the White House chief of staff, at the Transportation Department in the early 1990s and had been invited by the U.S. military to talk about Islam.

"This man's life is an open book, and not one time has he advocated violence against anyone," MacMahon said. He said that after Sept. 11, al-Timimi was simply urging the Muslims to leave the United States for their safety.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema allowed prosecutors to include in evidence an e-mail al-Timimi sent to followers on Feb. 1, 2003, the morning of the shuttle Columbia disaster.

"There is no doubt that Muslims were overjoyed because of the adversity that befell their greatest enemy," wrote al-Timimi, who called the disaster a "good omen" that 500 years of Western supremacy would end and "this way, God willing, America will fall and disappear."

MacMahon sought to blunt the impact of such language, telling jurors: "You may hate Ali al-Timimi when this case is over, but you will acquit him."

Brinkema said the trial could last up to three weeks.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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