3 charged in terror plot; local suspects planned attacks in Iraq, U.S. says

2/22/2006
BY MIKE WILKINSON AND CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

In a simple West Toledo ranch house and during target practice at a local shooting range, three area men plotted to build bombs and help assist the insurgent attacks in Iraq, federal authorities alleged yesterday.

The men, including a University of Toledo computer and engineering student, planned to wage holy war using skills learned via the Internet, officials said, and they intended to enter Iraq under the guise of doing business related to a Reynolds Road used-car lot that one of them owned.

Two of the men were arrested in Toledo over the weekend and pleaded not guilty during a hearing yesterday. The third was arrested in Jordan and flown back to Cleveland, where he pleaded not guilty yesterday.

All were ordered detained on the charges (read the indictment - use arrow down key to navigate PDF pages at bottom of this article).

I think America is safer today, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during a Washington press conference.

Mohammad Zaki Amawi, 26.
Mohammad Zaki Amawi, 26.

According to the government, the men became versed in terror attacks through videos and jihadist Web sites and sought to acquire powerful explosives. One of them talked about financing the operation by creating a dummy nonprofit organization, authorities said.

Whether they were close to implementing the alleged plan was unclear. But authorities took it seriously.

Clearly these folks had the motivation and they demonstrated they had the means, Mr. Gonzales said.

Mohammad Zaki Amawi, 26, of 4 Chelmsley Ct., Marwan Othman El-Hindi, 42, of 3524 Mayo St., and Wassim I. Mazloum, 24, of 5526 Grey Drive, Sylvania, were charged with conspiring to kill or injure people in the Middle East and with providing the support and resources to do so.

Mr. Amawi was also charged with twice threatening President Bush and with distributing bomb-making information.

If convicted on the terrorism conspiracy charge, the men could face life in prison, Mr. Gonzales said.

Wassim I. Mazloum, 24.
Wassim I. Mazloum, 24.

Mr. Amawi is a Jordanian citizen who was living in Toledo; Mr. El-Hindi was a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Jordan who was living in Toledo, and Mr. Mazloum is from Lebanon but a legal permanent resident of the United States.

Their citizenship and religion each is Muslim again put the focus back on a community still living with the fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The arrests also marked the second time in three days that Toledo-area Arabs and Muslims were roiled by terrorist allegations.

On Sunday, the U.S. Treasury Department shuttered a West Toledo charity, KindHearts, and froze its assets amid allegations that it was funneling money to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. The organization has denied the charges.

I hope the law will take its course, find the guilty ones, and throw them out. But don t sweep us all with one broom, said John Shousher, a leader in the Arab Muslim community.

During his press conference, Mr. Gonzales said the KindHearts investigation was separate but coordinated with the terror probe announced yesterday. He would not elaborate.

The family and associates of the men denied the charges. Attorney Charles Sallah said his client, Mr. Mazloum, was as surprised as anyone that he was arrested and charged.

He s not guilty. We fully expect him to be vindicated, attorney Stephen Hartman said of his client, Mr. El-Hindi. He s caught up in the Justice Department s overzealous work.

Attorney Charles Sallah escorts family members of Wassim Mazloum from the federal courthouse yesterday.
Attorney Charles Sallah escorts family members of Wassim Mazloum from the federal courthouse yesterday.

Authorities said they uncovered the plot with the help of a man who came to them 18 months ago. Code-named the Trainer in the indictment, he had been approached by Mr. El-Hindi to provide security and bodyguard training to the group.

Other members of the Muslim community had already gone to federal authorities with information regarding violent and radical statements made by the men. After the Trainer contacted them, law enforcement began actively pursuing him, officials said yesterday.

From late 2004 until last August, the Trainer, who has a military background and was not charged in the indictment, documented conversations and training exercises with the men, including weapons and plans to smuggle guns into Iraq.

The indictment accuses all three defendants of conspiring to kill or maim people overseas, including U.S. troops serving in Iraq, and providing the support and resources for the attacks.

Beginning in November, 2004, Mr. Amawi and Mr. El-Hindi began to research how to assemble suicide bomb vests and improvised explosive devices or IEDs, which Iraqi insurgents have used to attack American soldiers and decimate public confidence in the war.

The men downloaded information about weapons training from a secure jihadist Web site, watched instructional videotapes, and practiced shooting at target ranges. Each of the men allegedly offered his unique services to the cause, the indictment indicates.

Mr. El-Hindi met with an accountant in Dearborn, Mich., to form a nonprofit organization that would collect grants for tax education services and use the proceeds to finance jihadist activities. The indictment says the men also worked on the plot at Mr. El-Hindi s home on Mayo Street.

About a year ago, Mr. El-Hindi allegedly proposed showing training recruits in Chicago some of their jihad training materials.

Marwan El-Hindi, one of those named in federal indictments, lived in this home at 3524 Mayo St., according to court records.
Marwan El-Hindi, one of those named in federal indictments, lived in this home at 3524 Mayo St., according to court records.

Mr. Mazloum said that he could use his business, buying and selling automobiles, as a cover for traveling in and out of Iraq. State records show Mr. Mazloum registered two car dealerships City Auto Sales on North Reynolds, south of Bancroft Street, and Ram Auto Sales on Monroe Street, west of Douglas Road.

Last April, authorities allege that Mr. Amawi sought to obtain chemical explosives, code-named pillows, for a brother living in the Middle East. He handed the Trainer a paper napkin containing the relevant information.

The Toledo residents 10 months of planning supposedly culminated last August when Mr. Amawi and the Trainer boarded a Royal Jordanian flight bound for Amman, Jordan.

They took five laptop computers that Mr. Amawi planned to give to fellow mujahideen, an Arab term loosely defined as Muslim guerrilla warriors engaged in a holy war.

Once in Amman, Mr. Amawi gave Jordanian officials a letter from his employer, an unidentified Toledo travel agency, stating that the computers were intended to help a United States Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.

Two days after arriving, Mr. Amawi allegedly communicated with an unknown contact to distribute the computers to the mujahideen. He had previously tried, and failed, to enter Iraq from Jordan between October, 2003, and March, 2004.

The indictment does not detail what happened to the computers nor what happened to Mr. Amawi. The Justice Department said yesterday that the computers were never delivered.

The indictment makes clear that they held their meetings, held their training, held their recruiting, and their financing efforts right here in our own backyard, said Craig Morford, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Cleveland.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner downplayed the alleged terrorists links to Toledo, saying their presence in a community already rocked by last year s neo-Nazi riots was temporary and fleeting.

It is important to maintain the respect we have for each and every individual in our community, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, Mr. Finkbeiner said at a press conference.

Toledoans should not feel any personal embarrassment or discomfort over these announcements, Mr. Finkbeiner said. There are no geographical limits in terms of where these men and women hang their hat, or call home, albeit a temporary home.

He praised both the uniformed and civil authorities who provide protection for Toledoans during what he called a stealth war.

We can t see the enemy very often but they re out there, Mr. Finkbeiner said.

Ted Wasky of the Cleveland FBI office said members of the Toledo-area Muslim community stepped forward with critical information about the defendants.

They are the ones who deserve the most credit, Mr. Wasky said. The ability to prevent another terrorist attack cannot be won without the support this community gives.

Mr. Morford said local citizens were never in danger during the investigation.

John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, credited the arrests in part on enhanced surveillance but did not elaborate during the press conference at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Through extraordinary cooperation, enhanced intelligence capabilities, and improved information sharing, we have achieved considerable victories against national security and criminal threats based in the United States, Mr. Pistole said.

The comments appeared tailored to temper criticism of the Bush Administration s post-9/11 handling of the intelligence community, including its now controversial decision to allow wiretaps on select telephone conversations without getting a warrant.

Mr. Gonzales declined to answer whether the investigation was helped by warrantless surveillance, saying it relied on methods that would not jeopardize the investigation. Mr. Morford and Gregory White, Mr. Morford s boss as U.S. attorney in Cleveland, both talked about using traditional investigative techniques.

The investigation came into focus in Toledo on Sunday morning, when gun-wielding agents swept into the defendants Sylvania and Toledo neighborhoods. Toledo police assisted.

I saw all these vans and these guys get out, strapping on their vests and putting their helmets on, said Dorothy Mehki, a 73-year-old school bus driver who lives near the Sylvania home where Mr. Mazloum allegedly lived.

Ms. Mehki said she saw an FBI agent staring at her when she opened the front door of her Grey Drive home to let out her newly adopted puppy.

It looked like the Mod Squad on TV, she said. It was rather scary.

Noha Emrah, an Iraqi immigrant who lives across from the Toledo home of Mr. El-Hindi, said she was surprised to hear of the allegations against her neighbor.

I was shocked when I heard, she said. No one wants to think we have terrorists here.

Mr. El-Hindi appeared before U.S. Magistrate Vernelis Armstrong in a brown Lucas County jail jumpsuit. Mr. Mazloum wore tan pants and a tan shirt, both plain clothes. Both men sported short dark hair and beards and answered basic questions asked by the magistrate during the court proceedings, which included arraignments.

The two men will have a detention hearing Friday.

Mr. Mazloum s mother, brother, and cousin declined comment before and after yesterday s hearings. Afterward, Mr. Sallah said the family was distraught.

That was evident as Mr. Mazloum s mother wept when her son walked into the courtroom, when the charges were read, and when he was handcuffed to leave the courtroom.

Mr. El-Hindi and Mr. Mazloum were escorted out a side door of the federal courthouse. Shortly afterward, four vehicles carrying the men sped down Spielbusch Avenue past the federal courthouse and county jail.

A jail booking sheet for Mr. El-Hindi indicated he is suicidal and [an] escape risk. The sheet also indicates he is to have no visitation and his phone calls to his attorney will be monitored.

Karen Rieger, one of Mr. Mazloum s neighbors, said she was upset by the arrests and the charges. She s supported the U.S. troops in the Middle East since they first went overseas.

I m angry and I m scared, she said. It s right across the street from me. I don t know what they did in there; what they could have done.

I ve had a yellow ribbon hanging on my fence since the war began.

Blade staff writers Joshua Boak, Clyde Hughes, Ignazio Messina, David Patch, Mark Reiter, and Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Mike Wilkinson at: mwilkinson@theblade.com or 419-724-6104.