In the terror case against Hassan Abujihaad, formerly known as Paul R. Hall - sailor on the destroyer Benfold, the US government has another mangy cat in the GWOT.
"Material support of terrorism and disclosing previously classified information" are the beefs in the indictment against Abujihaad, according to a government press release from March. It sounds serious and the newsmedia did its usual listless job in reporting on it.
"Hassan Abujihaad, 31, is accused of supporting terrorism by disclosing secret information about the location of Navy ships and the best ways to attack them," wrote Associated Press. "Investigators say he provided those secrets, in classified documents, to a suspected terrorism financier."
If one looks at the indictment and evidentiary exhibits logged against Abujihaad, it's thinner cloth.
Abujihaad bought videos from Azzam Publications and Babar Ahmad*, a London computer programmer locked up since 2004 and awaiting extradition for trial to the US, for running a website that promoted Islamic fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, according to the press.
As for sending classified documents to Ahmad, what Abujihaad did do, and we'll get to it in detail in a bit, is send rash e-mail, including video orders from the Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer upon which he served.
Among these communications was one in which Abujihaad generally addressed the time of the movement of the Benfold's surface action group through the Strait of Hormuz. This was sensitive information, says the government and it is reasonable to believe it. In the e-mail, he also described a very general vulnerability of an asset in the group. In the government indictment, prosecutors misrepresent it slightly in attempting to polish the case against him.
Abujihaad's primary sin is extremely poor judgment. He corresponded with Babar Ahmad, a man the US government has been trying to get to trial in this country very badly. Abujihaad also called the government of the United States "scary pussies" in mail to Ahmad. Once this was recovered from a diskette in Ahmad's possession in London in 2004, its inflammatory content insured lawmen would pursue Abujihaad.
It appears from the indictment the US has been nursing the case for years. Assuredly, as soon as Abujihaad's e-mails were uncovered in London in 2004, it knew where he was. At that point, what appears to have transpired was the recruitment of a snitch to get close. The objective - to determine if there was a terror plot.
Apparently, no plot. Abujihaad received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 2002 and wound up in Arizona, perhaps an unhappy young man, eventually acutely aware that he might be in trouble for his e-mails to Azzam.
However, when the US government argues that Abujihaad gave material assistance to Ahmad, one expects not to see the equivalent of mail order of three videos reclassified as terrorist activity. Yet this is exactly what is meant.
In recovered e-mail in 2001, prior to 9/11, Abujihaad writes: "I'm wondering did you guise [sic] receive my two separate orders [sic] the first one was Russian Hell 2000. I ordered Chechnya From the Ashes at a later date. If you have any info please e-mail back."
In July of that year, now writing from the Benfold, Abujihaad thanks Ahmad for the quality of the jihad videos, although apparently Azzam Publications had sent him a different title than requested. "It is my first time viewing my first CD, Russian Hell Pt. 2 ... I thought it was Russian Hell 2000 Pt. 1." Abujihaad gives the port mail address for his ship, requests the title he doesn't have, Russian Hell 2000 Pt. 1, and writes, "Keep up the great work [sic] it is very well appreciated."
In August, Abujihaad sends Ahmad thirty dollars for another video, Bosnian War.
In this order, he has overspent by five dollars. Ahmad writes "Please tell us what you want done with the remaining $5."
"Dear Brothers, you guys can keep the remaining $5.00 and [add it] to the funds that you Brothers are spending in the way of Allah and the great Websites .. Azzam Pub."
Material assistance to terror groups is, you read right, ordering three videos, overpaying slightly and telling the seller to keep the change. "By stating that he watched the video, [Abujihaad] demonstrated that he knew Azzam supported acts of terrorism." Hmmm, maybe, but logically it seem to indicate many people not normally considered terrorists must now be included in the definition, too.
The more serious matter is Abujihaad telling Ahmad when the Benfold's surface action group was transiting the Strait of Hormuz prior to Iraqi Freedom. He writes Azzam, informing his battle group is "to hold up [UN] sanctions against Iraq ... There is the possibility that [the group] will carry out a strike against Afghanistan: Main targets: Usama and the Mujahideen, Taliban, etc ... The [battle group] will be going through the straits of Hormuz on April 29, 2001 at night."
The serviceman then includes some general information, which may appear sensitive to laymen, on his ship group. However, the same can be found in many open source public information websites on the US military. In the affidavit, the prosecution draws attention to the statement, "Weakness: They have nothing to stop a small craft with RPG etc except their Seals' Stinger missiles." In the complaint, it's presented slightly out of context, seeming to indicate Abujihaad is revealing something secret, like how to attack the battlegroup's large ships. Actually, he's indicating SEALs in boarding party boats don't have big heavy weapons, which constitutes more functional open source information, no matter the context.
"Please destroy message," he writes.
In a longer mail in July of 2001, Abujihaad rants to Ahmad that he's been in the Middle East for three months on his ship. "...it shall be noted before Usama's latest video by massive people all over the world, that psychological anxiety had set in on [America's] forces everywhere." This relates to the bombing of the Cole, a ship similar to the one on which he is serving.
"...the top brass and american officials were running around like headless chickens, very afraid wondering if there is a possible threat."
Abujihaad then refers to sailors on the Benfold reading an article by the New York Times' Tom Friedman entitled, according to him, "what it takes to make Americans turn tail, run."
"Most of the sailors said it was so true about the American government, and they feel like they are working for a bunch of scary pussies." He signs off "a Brother serving a Kuffar nation."
However, throughout the indictment and affidavit materials, there is nothing except indication that Abujihaad's basically a grumbling serviceman, impolitic and without common sense, as well as a buyer of video tapes on the wars in Chechnya and Bosnia.
Apparently, the case languished but was not forgotten until sometime last year when the government began to think it had a more compelling story to tell.
Homeland Security and the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force have a network of informants, one of whom was able to get a Chicago man, Derrick Shareef, entangled in a terror sting by volunteering to sell him hand grenades for throwing into a shopping mall. When Shareef tried to buy the grenades, he was arrested. Subsequent interrogation revealed Shareef and Abujihaad had, in the past, been acquaintances. At this point, investigators instruct the informant to contact Abujihaad with news about Shareef so the FBI can record the conversations.
Abujihaad, understandably, freaks out. At this point he knows the government is near. And on March 7 he was arrested.
It is a tale, and a bit of a sad one, in which someone which the book against, so far, does not show any serious involvement in terrorism. It is the story of a man who ordered videos and had loose lips when he should have kept his virtual mouth shut, a case of extraordinarily bad timing just prior to 9/11.
But since there is no shortage of experts who can be called upon by the government to insist, true or not, that Azzam Publications was allied with al Qaeda for the courts, Abujihaad's fate looks grim. ®
* Editor's note By strange coincidence (?), Ahmad featured prominently in Peter Taylor's "The new al Qaeda," the UK-made precursor to "Jihad.com," covered in George's column last month. The Ahmad component of Taylor's ouevre included a number of highly inflated allegations which many might conclude would have the net effect of bolstering the US government's efforts to extradite him. The Ahmad campaign's initial reaction can be found here, while Ahmad himself remains unextradited, although his remaining avenues of appeal seem narrow.
George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.