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Published: Tuesday, 6/3/2008

Toledo terror trial nearing final phase

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There's little doubt Mohammad Amawi, Marwan El-Hindi, and Wassim Mazloum opposed U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

There's also evidence that at different times, each of the men had viewed videos of what was occurring overseas and expressed an allegiance to their Muslim brothers.

And the men had come together to meet - just once - during which time they discussed in earnest what would be most helpful to those fighting against U.S. troops in Iraq - money, weapons, or manpower.

What is left for jurors in U.S. District Court in Toledo to decide is - although outspoken in their criticism - whether the men criminally "provided material support to terrorists" and "conspired to kill, maim, and injure" people - including U.S. soldiers - overseas.

The trial for the three Toledo-area men will resume tomorrow when jurors will be given instructions on the law and hear closing arguments. Both federal prosecutors and defense attorneys will sum up the 25 days of testimony for jurors, with each offering different explanations for the evidence.

The bulk of the government's case rested on the recordings made by a paid cooperating witness, Darren Griffin, who testified over a period of 12 days how he weaved his way into the Toledo Muslim community representing himself as a recent convert with extremist views.

Mr. Griffin, 42, took the witness stand April 2 as the first of 16 government witnesses.

He testified how he transformed himself into "Bilal," a former member of the military who became disenfranchised with the U.S. government. He testified that while many turned away, the three defendants responded to his critical words against U.S. policy in Iraq.

Mr. Amawi, who was living in Toledo, is of Jordanian descent but was born in the United States and has dual citizenship. Mr. El-Hindi, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in Jordan and living in Toledo at the time of his arrest. Mr. Mazloum, who is from Lebanon but is a legal permanent resident of the United States and who was living in Sylvania, was a University of Toledo student at the time of his arrest.

All of the men are Muslim.

Using about 33 hours of audio and video clips recorded by hidden devices, federal prosecutors used Mr. Griffin's testimony to present a timeline to jurors that began with the men viewing videos produced by Islamic extremist groups and progressed to the formation of a training plan for the purpose of waging "violent jihad."

Defense attorneys used the same recordings to refute the government's allegations and instead offer other explanations for the defendants' actions. Namely, attorneys questioned whether the men themselves ever conspired together or if, instead, it was a "cell" created and maintained by Mr. Griffin.

Mr. Griffin testified about the interactions he had with each of the defendants from 2004 throughthe time of their arrest in February, 2006. He spoke of the conversations between himself and the men where they planned training sessions for "jihad," or holy war, and of how they watched videos shown on jihadist Web sites.

Using the testimony of Mr. Griffin, FBI agents, and experts in computers, explosives, and linguistics, federal prosecutors alleged that in mid-2004 both Mr. Amawi and Mr. El-Hindi were accessing these Web sites in an attempt to find suitable training videos. Included were videos that showed graphic images of sniper killings, roadside bomb explosions, and attacks on U.S. military and government sites.

Mr. Griffin testified that Mr. Amawi in particular showed him upward of 100 videos.

In January, 2005, Mr. Amawi downloaded a video that showed step-by-step instructions on how to construct - and explode - a suicide bomb vest, federal prosecutors said.

The next month, Mr. El-Hindi forwarded an e-mail he received from an Islamic extremist group that showed a photographic slide show on the placement and detonation of improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs.

The two videos, forwarded to Mr. Griffin by the two men at Mr. Griffin's request, led to the charges against Mr. El-Hindi and Mr. Amawi that they distributed information regarding explosives.

Mr. Griffin turned the information over to the FBI, where it was analyzed by language and explosive experts. And although much of what was needed to create a deadly device was present, experts admitted that in many cases, the instructions on how to create explosives and in particular the suicide bomb vest were not complete.

The revelations that some of the steps were omitted emerged during questioning by defense attorneys, who attempted to cast doubt on the government's allegations of conspiracy and on Mr. Griffin's credibility as a key witness.

Specifically, during the questioning of Mr. Griffin and the FBI agents who served as his contacts during the investigation, defense attorneys asked whether they believed Mr. Griffin was "gathering information," as was his order from the FBI, or instead dominating, and in some cases leading, the conversations into talk of jihad and training.

Mr. Griffin, Special Agent Shannon Coats, and retired Special Agent William Radcliffe each testified that Mr. Griffin followed the orders of the FBI.

During opening statements and again with the use of witnesses, defense attorneys attempted to paint a different picture.

Mr. Amawi's attorneys questioned his family members and friends via satellite video conference from Jordan. Through translators in the courtroom, Mr. Amawi's father, Zaki Amawi, a business associate, and Mr. Amawi's "imam," or Muslim religious leader, testified about Mr. Amawi's trip to Jordan in 2005 - one on which Mr. Griffin accompanied him.

Government prosecutors characterized the trip as an attempt by Mr. Amawi to funnel laptop computers to the "brothers overseas."

The defense witnesses described it as a recreational trip that the cash-strapped Mr. Amawi made for free because Mr. Griffin funded the travel expenses. It also was a trip where Mr. Amawi discussed possible business opportunities in Jordan, the defense said.

Mohammad Sultam Alrawashdeh testified that he and Mr. Amawi had planned to open a laptop computer store together. Mr. Alrawashdeh was to provide the computer experience and Mr. Amawi was to help with funding and by securing laptops from the United States, Mr. Alrawashdeh said through an interpreter.

"Unfortunately he was arrested before the project was done," he said.

The testimony furthered Mr. Amawi's defense that he was financially unstable and found a source of money in Mr. Griffin, who over the years had given him several thousand dollars in cash and items.

The defense differed from that of co-defendant, Mr. Mazloum, whose family and friends testified about his upbringing in war-torn Lebanon. His mother, Salwa Elkechen, who was present in court, testified through an interpreter that Mr. Mazloum will one day be expected to serve required military service.

It was this background that led Mr. Mazloum to seek out training in weapons, defense attorneys contended.

Federal prosecutors showed videos recorded in April, 2005, when Mr. Griffin, Mr. Amawi, and Mr. Mazloum were target- shooting at the indoor range at Cleland's Outdoor World on Airport Highway. Mr. Mazloum's brother, Bilal Mazloum, attended a second session at the shooting range where the "men trained with guns," federal prosecutors said.

The training, which involved showing the men how to shoot a gun, was among the only type of information Mr. Griffin was authorized to share, FBI agents testified. Information such as how to build a bomb or create an explosive was not to be disseminated, the agents testified, despite numerous requests by the defendants.

Mr. El-Hindi, who federal prosecutors labeled as the conspiracy's money man, chose not to present witnesses on his behalf.

Mr. Griffin also testified about an introduction Mr. El-Hindi made between him and two cousins. Zubair Khaleel and Ahmed Khaleel, from Chicago - both now charged with terrorism-related crimes in a separate case - were recorded talking to Mr. Griffin about the training necessary to wage holy war overseas.

Mr. El-Hindi was present for portions of the meeting.

Defense attorneys countered that the training discussed during the meeting was physical training and not military training. Mr. Griffin insisted the parties knew he offered jihad training only.

Federal prosecutors deviated from the testimony of Mr. Griffin, expert witnesses, or law enforcement when they questioned Mikaeil Almozrouei, a former member of a Toledo mosque, who testified about his interactions with both Mr. El-Hindi and Mr. Amawi.

Mr. Almozrouei, 41, who lives in Michigan, testified that he distanced himself from Mr. Amawi - his one-time neighbor - because he was uncomfortable with the ideals Mr. Amawi expressed about the purpose of their religion. He said Mr. Amawi tried to convince him that videos showing beheadings and military attacks were "just."

He also testified that Mr. Amawi had at times spoke of "martyring himself."

Before hearing closing arguments tomorrow, jurors will be given instructions on the elements of each charge. If convicted, the men face up to life in prison.

Since the opening of the trial, the jury panel has shrunk by three people, leaving eight men and seven women - 12 trial jurors and three alternates - to decide the case. Judge James Carr, who is presiding over the trial, told jurors to anticipate two days for closing arguments, adding that they likely would begin deliberating Friday.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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