On Wednesday, August 28, the U.S. government brought an indictment against a Seattle man for "conspiracy to provide material support and resources" to al Qaeda. With the exception of Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, it's the first public indictment brought against a U.S. citizen on domestic terrorism charges in the Bush administration's "War on Terrorism."
The indictment is troubling in two very different ways. First, the charges are so vague that they seem to render constitutional activity illegal. In this sense, the indictment is redolent of 1940s and '50s McCarthyism, when innocent people were unjustly punished for political beliefs. For example, does simply tossing around the word "jihad," as the indictment repeatedly does, make something illegal? "Ujaama expounded and advocated the statements, writings, and beliefs... concerning the need to engage in violent jihad," the indictment states, as if that makes his statements illegal. It goes on: "Ujaama established one or more World Wide Web sites... concerning the need to conduct global violent jihad...." Since when are statements, writings, and beliefs, not to mention extreme websites, illegal? While Ujaama may have used the word "jihad" on a website, and even talked about "jihad" with his comrades, the government's liberal use of the word throughout the indictment seems reminiscent of "commie" baiting. The Ujaama indictment does note Ujaama's plans to commission armed robberies, create poisonous materials for public consumption, and firebomb vehicles. Government lawyers shouldn't need the word "jihad" to classify those things as crimes; unless they don't have a real case, that is. (My guess is the feds are simply trying to scare Ujaama with the indictment so he'll eventually provide incriminating info on Abu Hamza al-Masri, a London-based radical Islamic cleric who figures prominently in the U.S. government's September 11 investigations.)
The indictment, however, is troubling in an altogether different way. If the government actually has hard evidence to make good on its claims--the indictment hints that Ujaama was involved in specific plots to rob banks, poison water supplies, and set off car bombs--Seattle was definitely home to a dangerous terrorist. A convincing and successful government prosecution of Ujaama would confirm that homegrown militant Muslims are infiltrating mosques and plotting hideous crimes.
Both propositions--the breach of Ujaama's civil rights and the presence of homegrown death-dealing Muslim cells--are decidedly scary in their separate ways.
Thirty-six-year-old African American Earnest James Ujaama (a.k.a. Bilal Ahmed, a.k.a. James Earnest Thompson) was a member of the Dar-us-Salaam mosque located at East Union Street between 22nd and 23rd Avenues in the Central District. In the late '90s, when Ujaama and his brother Mustafa Ujaama (born Jon Thompson) were active members, the mosque attracted attention and praise for its efforts to wrest the neighborhood from drugs and prostitution--although some members thought the armed military-style patrolling (including a 1998 police report of a pistol whipping) went too far. (Others thought the whole African American Islamic-consciousness shtick was a bit silly. "You didn't know what to make of the long robes, skull caps, and the Adidas," one former neighbor told The Stranger. "Was this a hiphop fashion thing?")
Regardless, the mosque is central to Ujaama's indictment. The FBI views the mosque--which was located in a storefront next to a restaurant/video-game parlor--as a launching pad for a "jihad" plot involving Ujaama and the mosque's former leader, Semi Osman. (Osman was arrested last June on gun charges and for fraudulently trying to get U.S. citizenship. The men were allegedly conspiring to open a "jihad" training camp for followers of London-based radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Hamza's mosque, Finsbury Park's North London Central Mosque, is considered a recruiting ground for al Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker," attended the mosque while in London, as did "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
The indictment says that in October 1999, Ujaama scouted out land in rural Oregon that could be used as a military training camp and a "safe house" for Hamza. It also says Ujaama led discussions about armed robberies, manufacturing poison, and car bombs. In a fax to Hamza, the indictment says, Ujaama likened the Oregon terrain to Afghanistan and said the property could "store and conceal guns, bunkers and ammunition." (Adbul-Hakim, another member of the mosque, told the New York Times that the mosque was interested in the Oregon property to raise animals for religiously pure meat and to start a cemetery.)
In late November '99, the indictment says, "emissaries" of Hamza flew to Seattle and went to the Bly, Oregon, property where they "inspected the proposed jihad training camp... met potential candidates for jihad training, established security... through the use of guard patrols and passwords, and they and others participated in firearms training and viewed a video on the subject of... poisons."
The indictment adds, somewhat salaciously, that one of the "emissaries" identified himself as a "'hit man' for Osama bin Laden," and that Ujaama trained in al Qaeda camps.
According to the indictment, in February 2000 the "emissaries" set up shop in Seattle and "expounded the writings and teachings of [Hamza] and provided urban tactical training."
Meanwhile, Ujaama went to London using the name Bilal Ahmed, and worked for Hamza, running the cleric's inflammatory anti-U.S. website, which calls for jihad against the U.S. (Ujaama, by the way, has his own website, STOPAMERICA.ORG, which posts examples of U.S. foreign policy that Ujaama calls "genocide and crimes of terrorism against Muslim people." That website is not part of the indictment.)
Ujaama was arrested on July 25 at his grandmother's Denver home where federal agents seized two computers and two floppy disks and immediately brought Ujaama before a federal judge in a secret hearing. To the chagrin of civil libertarians, the government held Ujaama as a "material witness" for over a month in the ongoing September 11 investigation without ever charging him with a crime. There was talk that Ujaama had requested immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony in the government's 9/11 investigation, but that never happened. Instead, Ujaama took the Fifth and wound up facing his own indictment on terrorism charges in Seattle District Court last week.
Last week, Ujaama was moved to Seattle from Virginia. His stay in Virginia ended amid some controversy when Ujaama and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg called each other liars in the courtroom over stories that Ujaama had been harassed as "bin Laden's boy" by a court security officer.
Ujaama grew up in the C.D. with his mother, Peggi Thompson, a social worker at the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), the respected neighborhood resource center on Rainier Avenue. Before converting to Islam in 1997, Ujaama had established a glowing reputation as a champion for black entrepreneurship and as a motivational speaker for youth.
Ujaama attended North Seattle's Ingraham High School off Aurora and 135th Street. He started his own home-maintenance company when he was still in high school. After graduating from Ingraham, Ujaama spent a few years at the UW before owning and running a small computer store in the U-District. He sold the store after six months and with the money began a "Be Your Own Boss" campaign, urging other young people to start their own businesses. As an adult he wrote a book--The Young People's Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs. In 1993 he taught a class at Seattle Vocational Institute with a grant from the city.
When the Ujaama brothers' names surfaced in late July as possible al Qaeda supporters, King County Executive Ron Sims rushed to their defense. "These two gentlemen are community activists, not terrorists," Sims told the New York Times.
Sims' defense of Ujaama perfectly captures the contradictory impulses that plague left-leaning Americans in these post-September 11 days. Sims' initial reaction to Ujaama's arrest was to be wary of the U.S. government overreaching. But on the Friday immediately following the September 11 attacks, Sims gave a fire-breathing speech in Westlake Center. "We bow down to no one," Sims bellowed. "We will stalk them out!" His war chant got rowdy applause, and local TV ran Sims' angry voice during commercial breaks for what seemed like weeks. Thanks to the sentiment of politicians like Sims, "stalking them out!" has become the m.o. of the U.S. government. On October 26, 2001, Congress overwhelmingly passed the creepy USA PATRIOT Act, which dramatically broadened the government's ability to "stalk."
Indeed, the act broadens the definition of "terrorism" and eases restrictions on how the government can deal with those accused or suspected of being "terrorists." For example: It creates a broad new crime of "domestic terrorism," which includes such definitions as "activities that appear to be intended to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion." (Can you say ACT UP, Operation Rescue, Greenpeace, and anti-globalization activists?)
According to Nancy Chang, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, the lines between ideology and crime have been blurred by the PATRIOT Act. "Because this crime is couched in such vague and expansive terms," she writes in her new book, Silencing Political Dissent, "[the act] is likely to be read by federal law enforcement agencies as licensing the investigation and surveillance of political activists and organizations that protest government policies, and [read] by prosecutors as licensing the criminalization of legitimate political dissent."
Chang's not kidding. Look what the PATRIOT Act allows the government to do if it labels you a "terrorist":
· Subject citizens to roving wiretaps or have their homes and offices secretly searched without a demonstration of probable cause.
· Grant the FBI broad access to sensitive business records about individuals without having to show evidence of a crime.
(For an excellent look at the constitutional problems with the USA PATRIOT Act, go to www.aclu-mass.org/legal/USApatriotact.html.)
The PATRIOT Act mentality could explain why "community activists" like Ujaama are in trouble. "He has some fairly strong convictions," says one of Ujaama's lawyers, Daniel Sears. "And some of the positions he articulates probably would not align with what a number of government officials would wish. But I hope we haven't gotten to a point that we're jailing people for expressing their views if they don't align completely with the government."
Civics-lesson idealism notwithstanding, the Ujaama trial isn't so simple. The Ujaama case isn't only taking place in the context of the PATRIOT Act, it's also taking place within the grim reality that Islamic radicals want to kill--and to have killed--U.S. citizens by the thousands. Lower Manhattan is not a paranoid George Bush scare tactic. On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by Islamic suicide pilots who had set up shop in the U.S., and an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.