Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Many paintball players were worried even before September 11 that the law would crack down on Muslims in the United States, a former Marine testified yesterday in the trial of four Washington-area Muslims who participated in the games and are charged with aiding the Taliban.

“We didn’t want to be here. We wanted to leave,” testified Donald T. Surratt, 30, of Suitland, who was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1994.

Mr. Surratt is one of 11 Muslim paintball players indicted in June on 32 counts of weapons violations and conspiring to aid the Taliban in its fight against the United States.

As a result of a plea bargain, Mr. Surratt may get a break on a potential four-year prison sentence for his testimony against the four men on trial. Five others also pleaded guilty, and several more are expected to testify in the trial that began Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

All had played paintball, in which competitors fire paint-filled bullets at each other in mock combat. The government contends that they really were undergoing military training to ultimately join a Pakistani terrorist group.

Mr. Surratt said defendant Hammad Abdur-Raheem first invited him to play paintball. “He said we want to get together and learn how to fight,” said Mr. Surratt, who put his Marine training to use in paintball combat.

Other witnesses have testified that more than 20 men got together every weekend to play paintball in the woods or open fields of Northern Virginia. They said it was a light-hearted game until September 11. A month later, the men had broken up into small groups that played only occasionally, but seriously.

Paintball was regarded by Muslims as a form of jihad, which aids adherents of Islam to combat stress in themselves, and support and protect their families, both mentally and physically, testified Nabil Gharbieh, 29, who was instrumental in organizing the games.

Ibraham Ahmed al-Hamdi, 25, of Alexandria, was an amateur as the game was formed. But after a month in a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp in Pakistan, “He was a little more serious,” Mr. Surratt said. “He was very hard to ‘kill.’”

Mr. Surratt said he worked closely with the four defendants — Hammad Abdur Raheem of Falls Church; Caliph Basha Ibn Abdur-Raheem of Arlington, who is not related to Hammad; Seifullah Chapman, another former Marine; and Masoud Ahmad Kahn of Gaithersburg.

“We were expected,” but not required, to go to paintball, testified Navy Petty Officer Andre Thompson, who said he was disappointed, unhappy and “to some degree” angry upon learning that at least three paintballers had gone to Afghanistan to fight against India.

The U.S. government contends they violated a nearly century-old law that bars U.S. citizens from attacking countries with which the United States is at peace.

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