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Monday, June 13, 2011

Shadow of Ali Mohamed Hangs Over Nosair Appeal

The New York Times reports today that New York-area jihadist El Sayyid Nosair is appealing his sentence for terrorism-related conspiracy in the 1995 prosecution that brought down the "blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman.

The heart of Nosair's appeal revolves around Al Qaeda's mysterious spy, Ali Mohamed, who successfully infiltrated the U.S. Army during the 1980s, partially succeeded in infiltrating the FBI and was thwarted in a similar attempt against the CIA.

Nosair's argument, the kernel of which has been covered on this site and in my new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, is that prosecutors concealed Mohamed's location from the defense, which wanted to subpoena him as a witness.

First thing first: Mohamed's participation in the case would not have made a material difference in Nosair's verdict. His conviction was based on a raft of evidence pertaining to his assassination of radical rabbi Meir Kahane in November 1990 and his direction of other terrorist attempts from prison afterward.

Mohamed provided Nosair and others with training and support materials. Nosair's attorney wanted to argue that Mohamed (who was active duty Army at the time) was providing this support with the blessing of the U.S. government as training for the group to fight in Afghanistan alongside CIA-allied mujahideen.

The pertinence of this is pretty obviously flimsy, since Nosair never went to Afghanistan but instead worked on terrorist attacks in the greater New York area. Even if he had received training with government support, that wouldn't excuse his illegal actions any more than going through the police academy would excuse someone who later went on a shooting spree.

That said, the question of Mohamed's handling by federal officials, more broadly, has significant public interest outside of the context of Nosair.

Mohamed started acting as a double-agent informant for the FBI in 1991. He had been called back to the country by the FBI for questioning in the Nosair trial in late 1994 -- a very busy period for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, who were in the late stages of planning to bomb U.S. bound airliners (a plot soon to be disrupted) and in the early stages of the East African embassy bombing plot that would come to fruition in 1998. The details of Mohamed's relationship with the government is still murky.

The evidence suggests that some give and take took place during the Justice Department's 1994 meetings with Mohamed. In December 1994, according to court records, the lead prosecutor in the Nosair case, Andrew McCarthy, exchanged faxes with Mohamed concerning the subpoena issued by Nosair's attorney. McCarthy did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview about these faxes and other issues over the course of the last few years. The faxes may be explained by today's NYT report which states:
Far from keeping his whereabouts secret from the defense, the government has said in court papers that officials extracted an agreement from Mr. Mohamed, who met with the authorities in 1994, to be available for the trial, but that Mr. Nosair’s lawyers did not ask for help in securing his presence. “Mohamed simply was not suppressed,” prosecutors wrote.

I'd like to see exactly what those documents say, and they may turn up in the course of this case. I noted that while most of Nosair's filings in his appeal are available on PACER (and will eventually be posted here), none of the government's filings could be obtained as of this morning.

Finally, a note on the NYT's headline, it's not strictly accurate to refer to Nosair as a "convicted Al Qaeda agent." Even with a fairly loose definition of what it means to be an Al Qaeda agent (more on this in a day or two), it's a stretch to say Nosair was part of Al Qaeda in a meaningful sense -- based on the evidence as it currently stands. "Convicted Al Qaeda agent" also implies that he was convicted of being an Al Qaeda agent, which is flatly untrue. The story itself does not claim Nosair was a member or agent of Al Qaeda.

For much more about Ali Mohamed and Sayyid Nosair, buy J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, out now!

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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