ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge convicted a former Georgia Tech student Wednesday of plotting to aid a terrorist group by videotaping landmarks around Washington, D.C.
U.S. District Judge Bill Duffey found 24-year-old Syed Haris Ahmed guilty of one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.
Ahmed faces up to 15 years in prison. The judge delayed sentencing until after a codefendant’s trial that is scheduled to begin in August.
Prosecutors based the case against Ahmed on a series of videos that he and codefendant Ehsanul Islam Sadequee shot of U.S. landmarks, including the Pentagon and the Capitol. They said Ahmed sought to use the videos to earn respect from overseas terrorist leaders and attempted to connect with terrorists in Canada and Pakistan.
But Ahmed’s defense attorney Jack Martin countered during the bench trial that investigators had no evidence that Ahmed sought to act on his talk. He claimed it was boastful chatter from a misguided student who fell prey to anti-American propaganda online.
During Ahmed’s four-day trial, assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney said the government had to stop Ahmed before he could take action because he was “one step removed from the bomb-throwers.”
Martin portrayed the allegations as “momentary ideas” from an immature student whose idea of paramilitary training was shooting paintball guns in the north Georgia woods.
“This is a silly video, amateurish video,” Martin said. “It was nothing more than a childish act to achieve stature from people abroad.”
Ahmed had waived his right to a jury trial so that he could deliver his own closing arguments. During a 45-minute speech last week, he said he was “misguided” but never directly addressed the charges.
Instead, the former mechanical engineering student read nine verses of the Quran in Arabic, spoke of linguistic similarities between Hebrew and Arabic, and delved into some of the shared beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“I hope that if I deliver the message that has been revealed by Allah, the promise of protection from evil will come to me,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, wearing a white skullcap, made no comment when the verdict was read. His father, Syed Riaz Ahmed, said the judge’s decision was not surprising.
“He’s not guilty in the eyes of Allah, just in the U.S. law. He didn’t do anything,” the father said, characterizing the prosecution as overblown. “You think something and you are guilty of something.”
Federal authorities said they began building a case after Ahmed and Sadequee — both U.S. citizens — took a bus to Toronto in March 2005 and met with at least three other targets of an FBI investigation.
Authorities said they brainstormed strikes against targets that ranged from military bases to oil refineries, and plotted to disrupt the Global Positioning System satellite network.
Martin contended it was just “passing talk” of using sophisticated weaponry to knock out the system, but prosecutors said the talk amounted to the beginnings of a conspiracy and that Ahmed wanted to translate his plot into action.
They said Ahmed drove his pickup truck to Washington, D.C., with Sadequee a few weeks later and made the videos of U.S. landmarks, as well as a fuel depot and a Masonic Temple in northern Virginia. The two also were accused of discussing an attack against Dobbins Air Reserve Base just outside Atlanta.
He took another step toward acting on his plot, McBurney said, when he traveled to Pakistan on a one-way ticket in July 2005 to seek out Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group linked with attacks in the disputed state of Kashmir.
He returned to Atlanta about a month later after abandoning his attempt to join the group. But McBurney said Ahmed began to regret his decision soon after he arrived home.
“The ultimate goal was to get into a training camp,” McBurney said, “and pursue violent jihad.”