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Law

Conspiracy theory

Was it a cunning terror cell, or a group of hapless immigrants?

Defendant Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi.
Defendant Ahmed Hannan.
Some of the defendants met at the Arabian Village Restaurant in Dearborn.
Defendant Farouk Ali-Haimoud.
U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen presides over the case.
Defendant Karim Koubriti.
photo / Jeffrey Sauger
Farouk Ali-Haimoud's mother, Meriem-Ladjadj.
Courtroom Sketch/ Miriam Marcus
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Published 4/9/2003

A dead madman’s day planner. A convicted felon’s word. The mysterious recollections of a mentally challenged illiterate. This is some of the bizarre and critical evidence in the first terror trial to result from federal investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the hall outside U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen’s courtroom, two security guards monitor a metal detector. Everyone who enters must pass through it, sign in and show state identification. This is in addition to the two metal detectors used to screen visitors entering the courthouse in downtown Detroit.

The judge is taking no chances. Jury selection was closed to the public and press. The 16 men and women chosen to serve are not sequestered, but U.S. marshals escort them to and from their cars, which are parked in an unknown location. About a half-dozen marshals man the courtroom each day.

Rosen has prohibited lawyers and their witnesses from talking to the press. The dozen or so local and national reporters who have sat in on the trial since it began last month are identified by special credentials they are required to wear in court.

Before the jury files in each morning, four men enter the courtroom with hands cuffed behind their backs. Marshals unshackle them as they take their usual seats and chat with the eight court-appointed lawyers who represent them. Together, the attorneys have nearly 140 years of experience representing defendants in federal court.

The youngest defendant in this case, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, often laughs with his attorney. The oldest defendant, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 36, smiles. They appear surprisingly upbeat, considering their circumstances.

The four men are on trial for allegedly possessing fraudulent immigration visas, a bogus Social Security card and other false documents. They also are charged with providing substantial aid to terrorists. If convicted, each faces up to 25 years behind bars.

The FBI arrested three of the men at their southwest Detroit apartment six days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the forth was arrested about a year later in North Carolina.

According to the opening remarks of U.S. Assistant Attorney Richard Convertino, the four defendants intended “to get weapons and ship them back to Algeria” to assist Islamic terrorists.

Convertino’s accusations are expected to rest in large part on a key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, who, Convertino admits, is a “crook.”

Hmimssa, who has several aliases, was arrested in 2001 after photos of him were confiscated from the defendants’ apartment. Originally, Hmimssa was indicted on false document charges with the others, but agreed to testify against them and was to be tried separately.

Last week he pleaded guilty to several counts of credit card and document fraud and may face up to four years in prison. Convertino says Hmimssa will testify that the defendants spoke of “automatic weapons,” “Stinger missiles,” “training for jihad” and tried repeatedly to recruit him into their “network.” Depending on Hmimssa’s testimony, Convertino could recommend a shorter sentence for him, which would be subject to Rosen’s approval. When Metro Times went to press Monday, Hmimssa had not yet begun what is expected to be a week of testimony.

Also key to this case is a day planner notebook that was found in the defendants’ apartment the day they were arrested. The planner allegedly contains sketches of an American air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan.

Defense attorneys say their clients were merely in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” They say that the day planner belongs to a mentally ill Yemeni immigrant who drew military images because he had delusions of being a general. Three defendants moved into the Dearborn apartment after the Yemeni committed suicide and left the day planner behind, defense attorneys claim.

But the strangest evidence proffered thus far comes from James Sanders, a 20-year-old Detroiter who cannot read or write and says he graduated from a special education program. Sanders had worked at a video company with two of the defendants shortly before their arrests. He testified that they asked him for copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card, which he provided. He did not ask why they wanted them.

It appears that federal prosecutors are trying to show that the defendants attempted to manipulate feeble-minded people in order to gain false identifications or to make them take responsibility for the day planner notebook, which contained the alleged sketches of the military base and hospital.

Many questions linger in the trial, which began March 26 and is expected to last four to six weeks.

The madman

Ali Mohammed Ahmed jumped to his death from an I-94 overpass in Dearborn on March 3, 2001; he was about 21. According to his older brother, Naser, who only speaks Arabic and testified last week through a translator, Ali had never threatened to commit suicide, though he struggled with mental illness throughout his short life.

Naser, 27, said he came to the United States from Yemen in 1995. He sent for his brother Ali, four years his junior, in 1999, hoping that life in the United States might do him good. Ali lived with their father in his Dearborn apartment for about a month, but had to move out because he knocked on neighbors’ doors, asked for cigarettes and defecated in their bathtubs, testified Naser.

Ali moved in with Naser, who said Ali stared at the floor, would not bathe, was unable to hold a conversation and spent most days sleeping, chain-smoking and begging strangers for cigarettes. Sometimes Ali would walk in the snow naked, crawl on the floor, convinced he was a snake, or eat a meal while chatting with imaginary friends, Naser testified.

As a boy, he drew pictures of tanks and soldiers and believed he was a general, Naser said.

After seven months, the brothers were evicted because of Ali’s strange behavior; they rented a basement apartment in a Dearborn neighborhood populated by other Yemeni immigrants, Naser testified.

During the two years that Ali lived in the States, Naser said, he committed his brother to several psychiatric hospitals for treatment. But it didn’t help much; Ali refused to take his medication.

When he returned from his last hospital visit in February 2001, Ali had new clothes, cigarettes, money and a stereo with headphones, Naser said. Ali told Naser that two men gave him these things. He also said that they promised to pay him $20,000 if he signed some papers. Naser said Ali told him he would find the men at the Arabian Village Restaurant.

Naser testified that he took Ali to the restaurant on Dix Avenue in Dearborn, but they never found the alleged benefactors.

Around this same time, Naser testified, he found a day planner in his brother’s bedroom. Naser said that he perused it for a minute, saw his brother’s signature on some of the pages and tossed it in the trash. Ali came into the room and snatched the day planner from the waste bin, put it under his belt and threatened to kill Naser if he touched it again, Naser testified.

About 10 days after Naser found the day planner, Ali disappeared. Naser said he filed a report with Dearborn police, who told him two days later that his brother was found dead on I-94. His death was ruled a suicide. Naser testified that he had lied to the FBI when first questioned about the day planner, stating that he had never seen it. When asked by defense attorneys why he lied, he said he was afraid, but did not say what frightened him about the day planner.

Arabian Village

Naser testified that just days after Ali died, he moved out of the basement apartment.

The Yemeni landlord prepared it for new tenants. He and his two sons removed the carpeting, painted the walls and threw out a filthy couch that Ali and Nasir had used, as well as some of their belongings, according to Alhasam Gobah, the landlord’s son, who testified last week through a translator.

The landlord rented the one-bedroom unit formerly occupied by the Ahmeds to two Moroccans, Karim Koubriti and Ahmed Hannan, who had recently arrived in the United States, testified Gobah.

Hannan, 34, has a wife in Morocco. He arrived in New York City on Nov. 7, 2000; Koubriti, 24, came on the same plane as Hannan, though the two men did not know each other at the time, court records say.

Koubriti had studied law in Morocco and ran a coffeehouse, which he shut down before coming to the States, according to court records. His parents remain in Morocco. His mother is a teacher and his father a school principal. Koubriti hoped to bring his girlfriend to the States, where he arrived with only $800 in his pocket, according to court records and his lawyer’s opening remarks.

He stayed two weeks in New York before an employment agency assigned him to work at a chicken-processing plant near Canton, Ohio; Hannan got the same assignment, according to court records.

Hannan and Koubriti decided to leave Ohio and head to Dearborn because it has a large Arab population. They rented the one-bedroom basement apartment formerly occupied by Naser and Ali Ahmed from the Yemeni landlord for $300 a month, according to testimony and court documents. They worked at the Big Boy restaurant at Southfield and Dix, then at LSC Sky Chef in Romulus, about a mile from Detroit Metro Airport, court records indicate.

LSC Sky Chef provides meals for commercial airliners and the two Moroccan men cleaned meal carts used on the planes. But they were fired after they were injured in a car accident and unable to work. They then landed jobs in Livonia at Technicolor, a video company, where they packed videos, according to testimony and court records.

In their spare time, Koubriti and Hannan sometimes frequented the Arabian Village Restaurant, where the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera is regularly broadcast on the 25-inch TV.

The two men met another Moroccan who said his name is Jalali; he claimed he was from Casablanca, according to court testimony and court records. They didn’t believe him because his accent didn’t fit.

They also suspected that Jalali was not his real name and chided him. Their suspicions were correct. Jalali, 32, had been in the United States illegally for seven years and had several aliases, according to court records. He was arrested in Chicago for credit card fraud in May 2001 and fled to St. Paul, Minn.; he arrived in Detroit on a Greyhound bus around June 2001, according to court records. He spent his first night in a Dearborn mosque on Dix Avenue. Koubriti and Hannan invited him to stay with them, according to the federal prosecutor’s opening remarks.

Jalali is not the first person they met at the Arabian Village Restaurant. In June 2001, they befriended an Algerian named Farouk Ali-Haimoud, who is now 24. Ali-Haimoud had come to the United States in November 1999 with a high school education. His parents are divorced. His father is still in Algeria; he lives with his mother in Detroit. She was educated in France, according to defense attorneys’ opening remarks. Ali-Haimoud’s sister lives in Orlando, Fla., with her two daughters and husband; his sister is in medical school, according to court records.

Ali-Haimoud has visited his sister once since he arrived in the States; they toured Disney World and MGM Studios.

Ali-Hamoud sometimes visited the three Moroccans at their Dearborn apartment. Relations with Jalali were strained. Koubriti did not like Jalali because he bragged and called his roommates “laborers,” according to court records.

Within a month of his arrival, Jalali moved out and Ali-Haimoud took his place.

The three men eventually rented a larger apartment in southwest Detroit on Norman Street.

The raid

On Sept. 17, 2001, FBI agent Mary Ann Manescu was tracking possible suspects in connection with the terrorist attacks of six days before. At the time, the petite woman had been with the bureau for six years, but had only worked on the drug squad. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, she and the other agents at the Detroit office had been working around the clock to follow up on leads in the case, Manescu testified.

Manescu said that she was to track down Nabil Almarabh. At the time of the attacks, Almarabh was on a federal terrorist watch list. When Manescu entered Almarabh’s name into a government database, she said it showed his last address as an apartment on Norman Street in southwest Detroit. She took the information to agent Michael Thomas, who has experience in counterintelligence and has since helped establish the Detroit Division of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is made up of several law enforcement agencies.

Thomas testified that he, Manescu and five others, including an agent who speaks Arabic, headed to the Norman Street address at about 5:30 p.m.; Almarabh’s name was on the mailbox, according to court testimony.

Thomas testified that he knocked at the front door, while the other armed agents headed to the side and back of two-story house, which has an apartment on each floor.

Koubriti answered the door in boxer shorts, said Thomas. Thomas asked Koubriti if he recognized Almarabh’s photo and if he lived at the apartment. He answered, “No,” to both questions.

Thomas said that he also asked to see Koubriti’s identification, which was upstairs. The agent asked if he and a colleague could come inside. Koubriti agreed. The agents scanned the two-bedroom apartment for Almarabh, who was not there, testified Thomas. They found Koubriti’s roommate, Ali-Hamoud, asleep in the living room. His other roommate, Hannan, was sleeping on a bedroom floor.

Thomas asked the three men to sit in the living room. The roach-infested apartment had few furnishings — a broken table, desk, chairs, TV and VCR. The three men stored their clothes in trash bags and slept on thin mattresses; moldy food was in the fridge, testified Thomas.

Koubriti showed Thomas a valid immigration card and driver’s license. The other two said their IDs were in a bank deposit box. (This turns out to be true; the three men are in the country legally, according to court records.)

Through the interpreter, the men were asked about Almarabh and where they worked. None of the men knew Almarabh. Ali-Haimoud was washing dishes at Leon’s Good Food in Taylor. Hannan and Koubriti said they worked at Technicolor in Livonia, according to Thomas.

Thomas noticed airport badges for Hannan and Koubriti in one of the bedrooms and confronted them. Thomas said that Koubriti told him that he and Hannan formerly worked at Sky Chef, but were terminated after they were injured in a car accident. Thomas concluded that “things are not adding up” and had the three men handcuffed.

Thomas said he asked if he could search the apartment and provided a consent form, which was signed by Koubriti. While agents searched the apartment, the Lebanese translator offered to share a cigarette with them. They accepted.

Koubriti told Thomas that he would find some fraudulent identification and other false documents on a desk in the bedroom, testified Thomas.

Thomas called Koubriti into the room. Koubriti told the agent that the documents, which included a false passport, Social Security card and visa, belonged to a former roommate, Jalali, said Thomas.

Manescu testified that she found a black suitcase in the bedroom closet and that she pulled a day planner from the side pocket and saw Arabic writing as well as some sketches in it, including what appeared to be airplanes.

Koubriti told her the suitcase also belonged to Jalali, who left it in an apartment they had shared in Dearborn, said Manescu.

Koubriti was removed from the room and the translator was brought in. The translator testified that he leafed through the day planner and saw what appeared to be renditions of a U.S. air base in Turkey and an airport in Jordan. (The agents later alleged in court that the second sketch is a military hospital in Jordan.)

Ali-Haimoud told the agents that he found the day planner under the couch in their previous apartment and that they used it for scrap paper; paper from the day planner was strewn about the apartment, testified Thomas.

At about 2 a.m. the federal investigators obtained a search warrant to remove all the material from the apartment.

Nabil Almarabh, the man the agents were searching for, was arrested days later in Chicago, where he served an eight-month sentence for entering the country illegally, according to court records. Originally, U.S. law enforcers considered Almarabh to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden and a member of al Qaeda, but later changed their minds because they had no evidence of this, said his attorney, Mark Kriger. Almarabh is currently in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Services and is to be deported to Kuwait, where he was born, or Syria, where he is a citizen, said Kriger.

The thief

In November 2002, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi was heading from New York City to Houston on a Greyhound bus when it stopped in North Carolina. The bus was randomly checked for drugs. According to the testimony of Stephen Razik, an officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration, he reviewed passengers’ IDs. Razik noticed that a slender man seated behind the bus driver was shaking and biting his lip. The passenger handed the agent a New Jersey driver’s license that bore the name Nelson Feliciano, the agent said. Razik, who is from New Jersey, immediately recognized that the license was a forgery. New Brunswick was spelled “New Branswick” and there was an extra digit in the zip code.

Razik asked to search the man’s bags; he agreed. According to Razik, the man, who was wearing a hairpiece, said, “Please don’t arrest me. I’ll tell you the truth.”

The agent said he found more than $83,000 in cash and about $4,600 in blank money orders. Razik said he also found several forms of false ID, passports, a computer scanner and a postcard of the World Trade Center.

The passenger told the agent that his real name was Albdel-Ilah Elmardoudi and that he was born in Morocco, testified Razik. Razik learned that Elmardoudi, who has several aliases, is wanted in Detroit for possibly aiding terrorists.

Detroit FBI agents went to North Carolina to interview Elmardoudi. He claimed that he purchased the false identification in New York City, Charlotte FBI agent John Selleck testified. Agents say he also told them that he originally fled from Minneapolis where he was charged in 2001 with stealing and selling telephone calling card numbers.

Elmardoudi said he would watch and memorize phone card numbers that travelers punched into pay phones at the airport, said Selleck. The stolen numbers then were used to place $745,000 in overseas calls; he used the numbers or sold them to others, according to court records. He spent a month in jail in Minneapolis for the crime. When released to a halfway house, he fled to avoid further prosecution, according to Selleck’s testimony.

Elmardoudi, who earned degrees in law and international relations in Morocco, came to the United States on a student visa and is in the country legally, according to Selleck’s testimony. He also told investigators that he had hoped to further his studies here, but did not have money to continue. Elmardoudi told Selleck that he went to New York and worked on a chicken farm, moved to Minneapolis in 1997 and got a job washing dishes and that he married, but later separated. After his arrest in Minneapolis, he said he fled to Detroit, where he met Hannan and Koubriti at a mosque; he lived with them for three weeks, said Selleck. Asked if the former roommates were involved in terrorism, Elmardoudi said they weren’t, according to Selleck.

Selleck testified that Elmardoudi told the agents that he left Detroit to move to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a man named Jalali.

The snitch

Youseff Hmimssa has many aliases. One of them is Jalali. On April 3, the 32-year-old Moroccan, who has been in the United States illegally for seven years, stood in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs before Judge Rosen. Hmimssa was in the downtown Detroit courtroom pleading guilty to document fraud.

One of Hmimssa’s aliases is Michael Saisa. FBI agents found false identification bearing that name in the Norman Street apartment where they arrested Hannan, Koubriti and Ali-Hamoud.

They arrested Hmimssa in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 28, 2001. He was charged with document fraud, according to court records. Hmimssa avoided being charged with providing substantial aid to terrorists by agreeing to testify against the defendants.

The irony is that Hmimssa is the only one of the bunch who is in the country illegally, according to court records. He also has quite a criminal record. He has felony charges against him in Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. Hmimssa pleaded guilty to multiple charges of credit card and document fraud before Rosen last week.

He faces up to four years in prison and must pay more than $180,000 in restitution to credit card companies, according to court proceedings last week.

Hmimssa is the prosecution’s star witness.

The trial

On the second day of the trial, a juror slipped a note to the judge asking that each defendant’s name be spelled aloud and given in the order that the men are seated.”I think that’s a reasonable request,” answered Rosen. It is reasonable, considering that there are eight defense lawyers, two prosecutors, four defendants and countless witnesses.

The first name called off was Karim Koubriti, who has worn a white short-sleeved shirt and dark tie nearly every day since the trial began. The 24-year old Moroccan’s English is limited. Rotating translators sit at a large table with him, the other defendants and their lawyers. Through a headset, Koubriti has listened to a translation of the trial from English to Arabic.

Ali-Haimoud, who is from Algeria, also has been using the headset, though he knows some English. He is a handsome young man with a broad smile and dark eyes. His attorney, Robert Morgan, described Ali-Haimoud as a devout Muslim who prays five times a day.

To Ali-Hamoud’s left is Ahmed Hannan, who knows very little English. The 34-year-old Moroccan’s pockmarked face often appears tense and his eyes worried.

His expression contrasts that of Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, who is also Moroccan and nearly always appears relaxed. He speaks fluent English and never uses a headset.

Federal prosecutors say Elmardoudi, the man who misspelled New Brunswick and had too many digits in the zip code of his false driver’s license, is the brains of the terror operation. They say that covert terrorist cells need access to money, false I.D. and a means to communicate anonymously abroad; Elmardoudi had all three.

After the first couple days of the trial, the number of journalists began to thin out. Remaining reporters barely filled the benches designated for the press.

The mood of the courtroom is much less grave than one would expect. Lawyers crack jokes during testimony and the jury laughs. The judge jokes as well and regularly interrupts lawyers to question witnesses. Rosen went so far as to tell a defense attorney that he wasn’t properly cross-examining a witness and took over the cross-examination.

He has worked to be fair to prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, allowing lots of leeway to argue.

At the end of each day, Rosen asks the jurors if they have any questions, which is unusual for a judge to do. Only a couple jurors have taken Rosen up on the offer. It is hard to know what the nine women and seven men make of the case so far. Most seem to be paying attention and some take notes on court-provided note pads.

The other person who has been taking notes is Ali-Haimoud’s mother, Meriem Ladjadj. She is the only relative of a defendant who has attended the trial. Ladjadj has missed only a day-and-a-half of the testimony because of car trouble.

“I have to be here,” she says. During breaks, Ladjadj sometimes reads the Quran. Her son’s attorney told her not to talk to Metro Times.

“I would love to talk,” she says. “But I must respect the attorney’s wishes.”

She sometimes is the last one to leave the courtroom, waiting for a chance to smile and wave to her son; he smiles and waves back.

The strangers

James Sanders, a young African-American man from Detroit, testified. When he took the stand, Koubriti, who has been stone-faced for most of the trial, laughed.

Sanders testified that he worked with two of the defendants, Koubriti and Hannan. He pointed to them from the stand; he could not pronounce their names. Sanders, who cannot read or write, said that he graduated from a special education program. He spoke softly. Rosen asked him repeatedly to speak into the microphone.

Sanders told the court that he met Koubriti and Hannan at work in September 2001 in Livonia at Technicolor, where they sorted and boxed videos; they worked together for about one week. He met the two in the cafeteria. Sanders testified that he had not brought his lunch and Koubriti and Hannan offered to share theirs with him. Sanders said that he told them that he used to be a Muslim.

On another day, Sanders said, he was at a bus stop when the two men offered him a ride home from work. Sanders testified that another defendant in the case, Ali-Haimoud, drove the car. The men spoke to each other in Arabic and Sanders did not know what they were saying.

Sanders said they told him they needed Social Security cards and driver’s licenses. He directed them to the Secretary of State and Social Security office. When they got to each location, the men did not go in and told him that, “We can’t use this place,” testified Sanders, who did not ask why.

Koubriti asked Sanders about his health. Sanders said he told him that he saw a doctor due to mental health problems and that he sometimes wanted to hurt himself. They then dropped Sanders off at home, he testified.

Sanders testified that he next saw the men when they showed up at his house unexpectedly and asked if he wanted to go to a mosque with them. Sanders agreed. Sanders could not recall where the mosque was located. On the drive home, Koubriti asked Sanders if he wanted to be a Muslim again; he said he didn’t.

They asked him for copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card, testified Sanders, who provided the documents without asking why they wanted them.

When they dropped Sanders at home, they asked him to sign his name on a tablet of paper, testified Sanders, who signed several pages. He said there was a map of Michigan on the tablet.

Koubriti told Sanders to hang on to it, testified Sanders. A day or two later, two strangers, a woman and man, showed up at his house at midnight, Sanders said. The woman wore a traditional Muslim head covering. The couple asked him for the tablet; the woman also asked Sanders about his daughter, who was less than a year old at the time; she also said she wanted to see his daughter, according to Sanders. This surprised and frightened Sanders, who never before laid eyes on the woman or man and has not seen them since.

After Sanders and the jury left the courtroom during his first day of testimony, defense attorneys questioned Sanders’ competency; they want to review his medical records before they cross-examine him. The defense argued that this is a “classic” case in which they should have been notified in advance as to what the witness would testify to.

Rosen, who has served on the federal bench since 1990, said, “There is nothing classic about the evidence in this case.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail amullen@metrotimes.com.

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