A bespectacled computer whiz sits at the center of what civil libertarians are calling a confrontation between the First Amendment and the war on terror.
Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a Muslim graduate student at the University of Idaho, has spent the past six weeks on trial on charges he provided material support to terrorist groups — not with cash or arms, but with computer expertise.
The Saudi-born Ph.D. candidate set up and ran Web sites that prosecutors say were used to recruit terrorists, raise money and disseminate inflammatory rhetoric.
His supporters say the government is using vague anti-terrorism laws to prosecute Al-Hussayen for his beliefs.
“To the extent that someone provides guns or money to a group for terrorism, that should be punished,” said Kevin Bankston, an attorney for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But you can’t outlaw advocacy for any group or position, and that seems to be what they are attempting to do.”
The case is seen as a major test of a provision of the Patriot Act that targets “secondary” terrorists who provide “expert advice or assistance.” In January, in another case, a federal judge in California ruled the provision violates people’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.
In the Al-Hussayen case, federal prosecutors have portrayed him as a major force in the Islamic Assembly of North America. They say he served as its webmaster and posted diatribes against Jews and the United States and scholarly Islamic decrees extolling the virtues of suicide bombers.
“Al-Hussayen provided the linkage to create the platform and then the content to advocate extreme jihad,” prosecutor Kim Lindquist said.
Prosecutors have presented evidence that Al-Hussayen registered the site’s domain name, paid bills for server space, uploaded files and participated in chat-room discussions. They allege he knew his actions would bring in donations and recruits for groups affiliated with terrorist organizations, including Hamas.
Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization. Israel and the U.S. State Department consider Hamas a terrorist organization, though it also operates an extensive social services network in the territories.
Al-Hussayen, 34, has said he simply volunteered his computer skills to keep the Michigan-based group’s Web sites running. One of his attorneys, David Nevin, said the Web site’s concentration on Muslim conflicts around the world merely reflects Al-Hussayen’s deep concern about oppression of those who share his faith.
Al-Hussayen’s attorneys have further argued that he had little to do with the creation of the material posted. And they say the material was protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and was not designed to raise money or recruit militants.
Testimony in the case concluded Wednesday, and closing arguments are set for Tuesday. The three terrorism-related charges alone carry at least 15 years in prison each. He is also charged with visa fraud and making false statements.
Al-Hussayen’s attorneys have instructed him not to comment on the case, and U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge has ordered lawyers on both sides to avoid commenting on the trial.
At the time of his arrest last year, Al-Hussayen was a leader of the Muslim community in Boise with near-perfect grades. He issued a statement condemning the Sept. 11 attacks, then marched in a peace rally, donated blood and worked to educate others about Islam.
Prosecutors and their technical experts have plowed through 20,000 e-mails, 9,000 telephone calls and numerous financial records since the investigation into Al-Hussayen’s activities began in 2001.
Jack Van Valkenburgh of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the actions attributed to Al-Hussayen fall short of criminal activity.
“What about the Lambs of God or those targeting abortion doctors on the Internet? Are we going to be going after their webmasters?” he said.
A father of three boys, Al-Hussayen comes from a prominent Saudi Arabian family. His father is retired as the Saudi minister of education.
Al-Hussayen came to the United States in 1994 after completing undergraduate studies in Saudi Arabia. He earned a master’s degree from Ball State University in 1996 and enrolled at the University of Idaho in 1999 for its computer-science program, which was rapidly building an international reputation.
He has continued to work on his doctorate from his jail cell. His wife and their children returned to Saudi Arabia earlier this year rather than fight deportation.
John Dickinson, who remains Al-Hussayen’s academic adviser, said the government has yet to make good on the promise federal agents made when they interviewed him the day Al-Hussayen was arrested.
“They said what I know about Sami was only the tip of the iceberg, that they had huge amounts of material against him,” Dickinson recalled. “But I have never seen a single piece of evidence ever to make me understand why they are proceeding with the prosecution.”