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Another Case Goes Up in Flames

Everyone who is rooting for Us instead of Them is hoping that it wasn’t a metaphor. The FBI has had enough bad news since 9/11 including, of course, the event itself. The metaphor to which I refer is the possibility that its latest case may have gone up in flames. That seems to be what has happened with almost all the cases it has brought against terrorists so far, although it is only the case against Sheik Ali Hassan al-Moayad that may quite literally take that path.

If this were a quiz instead of a column, the question asked would be what do all of the following names have in common: Wen Ho Lee, James Yee and Brandon Mayfield? The answer is that each man was accused of terrible crimes, two of which would have qualified the accused for the death penalty, and the third would have qualified its recipent for life in prison. The other commonality is that Messrs. Yee and Mayfield were found guilty of nothing and Mr. Lee was found guilty of downloading classified material onto his personal computer, a minor offense. And now as a parting gift to John Ashcroft, another case of which he was proud appears to be in danger of going up in flames although only time will tell whether the flames were extinguished soon enough to preserve at least a part of it. That is the case of Mr. Moayad.

When Mr. Moayad was first captured, Mr. Ashcroft personally told Congress that charges had been filed against the Sheik. According to Mr. Ashcroft, the Sheik raised $20 Million for Osama bin Laden and was being charged with terrorism financing. Mr. Ashcroft also let it be known that Mr. Moayad had been Osama bin Laden’s spiritual advisor. That information was gleaned from transcripts of conversations between informants and Mr. Moayad prior to his arrest in Germany.

Like all the other announcements made by Mr. Ashcroft in connection with the arrests of terrorists, the announcement, though exciting, left off an important bit of information. Mr. Moayad was dispensing spiritual advice to Mr. bin Laden during the years the United States was dispensing war materiel to Mr. bin Laden to enable him to help the United States fight the Russians in the Afghanistan. According to the transcript, his relationship ended (like the relationship Mr. bin Laden had with the United States) before bin Laden became an enemy of the United States. It now appears that the government’s case may have suffered a fatal blow in November because of its single most important witness leading the case against Mr. Moayad down the same path taken by other terrorist trials. That witness is Mohamed Alanssi.

Mr. Alanssi is a Yemini man who was a valued asset for the FBI. In a January, 2003 affidavit written by FBI agent Robert Fuller, Mr. Fuller said that Mr. Alanssi “provided information that has proven to be reliable and contributed, in part, to the arrests of 20 individuals and the seizure of over $1 million.” (Not reported is whether any of those terrorists was actually convicted or whether they were, as so many other suspected terrorists, simply put away for safekeeping in case the government decided to prosecute them at some time in the future. )

According to reports, much of the case against the sheik hinges on testimony from Mr. Alanssi. He was the contact who tipped off the FBI about Mr. Moayad’s ties to bin Laden and lured Mr. Moayad to the hotel room in Germany. It was supposedly he, in whom Mr. Moayad confided that he had been Mr. bin Laden’s advisor and had ties to Al-Qaida. On November 9 Mr. Alanssi faxed a letter to Agent Fuller demanding $5 million for his services. The FBI declined to pay and Mr. Alanssi then decided he had better things to do than testify. One of them was to set fire to himself. He was burned over one-third of his body before the fire was extinguished. He has said he will not testify. If he is compelled to do so and proves to be a poor witness reports suggest there may be no conviction.

If acquitted, Mr. Moayad would be in very good company and the FBI would again be embarrassed. The good news for the FBI, of course is, that’s not the end of the road. Thanks to Mr. Alanssi and others, it has lots of other people locked up as terrorists and it can always try another one. One of these days it will certainly succeed in getting a conviction. The only question is, when? That is a question to which those locked up for many months without charges would almost certainly be interested in having answered.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

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