A Virginia man who three years ago was acquitted of giving aid to the Taliban was convicted yesterday of lying to a federal grand jury about his training with a Pakistani militant group.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria convicted Sabri Benkahla, 31, of Falls Church, of four felony counts, including perjury and obstruction of justice. He faces up to 25 years in prison when sentenced April 27.
Prosecutors said Benkahla, a U.S. citizen, lied about training he received from Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the U.S. government has since designated a terrorist group.
Benkahla told a grand jury that he never engaged in combat training during a 1999 trip to Pakistan, but the government contended that he trained with Lashkar on the use of equipment such as rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
The defense argued that prosecutors — stung by Benkahla’s acquittal in 2004 on charges of providing support to the Taliban — laid a perjury trap by summoning him before the grand jury and asking questions that had no bearing on the grand jury’s terrorism investigation.
Benkahla was given immunity for his grand jury testimony, so he could not invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
During the trial, an FBI agent testified that Benkahla’s testimony was needed because of an investigation into his links to terror suspects, including Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen from Falls Church who subsequently was convicted of joining al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush.
Benkahla was one of only two defendants who obtained acquittals among more than a dozen prosecuted in the government’s investigation of the now-defunct Dar al-Arqam mosque in Falls Church.
Some Dar al-Arqam members used paintball games in the Virginia woods in 2000 and 2001 to train for holy war around the globe. Some admitted they traveled shortly after the September 11 attacks to Pakistan to receive jihad training, with the eventual goal of joining the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and fighting U.S. troops. Three of the defendants received what amounted to life sentences.
The group’s spiritual leader, Ali al-Timimi, received a life sentence for soliciting treason and urging followers to join the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11.
Benkahla’s weeklong trial revealed a few new details about the Dar al-Arqam investigation. An FBI agent testified that one of the men who joined Lashkar after September 11, Masoud Khan of Gaithersburg, told the FBI after his conviction in 2004 that Lashkar agents asked him to scope out a chemical plant in Maryland.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government until December 2001.
Benkahla did not testify during the trial. His attorney, John Keats, acknowledged that his client had inquired with rebel Muslim groups in the breakaway Chechnya region of Russia about joining the holy war there, but said he is a good American who was being tarred by prosecutors through guilt by association.
When Benkahla was acquitted in the 2004 bench trial, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said that she found evidence that Benkahla had trained with Lashkar, but that no compelling evidence existed to prove that any of the training occurred in Afghanistan, a required element for a conviction on providing services to the Taliban.
“Truthful and complete information is a cornerstone of our war on terrorism,” U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said after the conviction yesterday. “We need and expect the truth. When we do not get it, as Mr. Benkahla now knows, we prosecute perjury and obstruction of justice aggressively.”
Mr. Keats did not return phone calls seeking comment.