Webmaster Charged with "Terrorist" Weblink

Revolutionary Worker #1243, June 13, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

It was 4:30 in the morning in February 2003, and the University of Idaho campus was asleep. But lurking outside of the student housing in Moscow, Idaho--located midway between Spokane, Washington, to the north and Boise to the south--were 120 FBI agents armed in riot gear who had been flown into town to carry out a raid. The target of the raid was Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia. Al-Hussayen was arrested for visa fraud and then later charged with supporting terrorism.

A University of Idaho professor described how the FBI went after not only Al-Hussayen but a larger community of students on the campus: "At least 20 other students who had the misfortune to either know the suspect or have some minor immigration irregularities were also subject to substantial, surprise interrogations (four plus hours) although none were detained. A witch hunt is on for additional unnamed suspects who supposedly helped the guy who was arrested. The INS and FBI are working together, using gestapo tactics to question students. Reading about this stuff is one thing. Having it happen in your backyard is another. The international students at the University of Idaho are terrorized and threatened."

At the time of his arrest, Sami Omar Al-Hussayen was a few months from completing his doctoral studies in computer science. Like most of the people targeted in recent federal "terrorist" cases (for example, the Lackawanna 6), Al-Hussayen is not charged with carrying out any specific acts. Instead, he is accused of "material support" of terrorism--a charge increasingly used by the government to go after its targets and chill the wider political climate.

The twist in this particular case is that the "support" alleged by the government is Al-Hussayen's work as a webmaster--helping to create and maintain web sites that promote Islam and debate questions surrounding that religion.

Al-Hussayen went on trial in April of this year and faces a 14-count indictment. As we go to press, the case has gone to the jury.

Targeted by the Government

The most serious government charge against Al-Hussayen claims that he "provided and conspired with others to provide material support and resources, expert advice, assistance, communications equipment, currency, monetary instruments, financial services and personnel by, among other things, creating and maintaining internet web sites and other internet media designed to recruit mujahideen and raise funds for violent jihad in Israel, Chechnya and other places."

Al-Hussayen maintained a number of web sites, including those associated with the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA) (a non-profit charity organization) and the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation (a charity group based in Saudi Arabia). The government charges that some of the content on these web sites included articles, links, and posts to content "justifying and encouraging violent jihad." And, according to the government's twisted argument, Al-Hussayen's work as webmaster for those sites makes him guilty of "material support" for terrorism.

In addition, the government charged Al-Hussayen with supporting a foreign terrorist organization. The government's "evidence" for this charge is that one page within a site that he maintained had a hyperlink to the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), a Palestinian fundamentalist group.

Al-Hussayen also faces nine "visa fraud" charges. The government claims that because Al-Hussayen helped maintain web sites, he violated immigration papers he signed that said his "sole purpose" in staying in the United States was to "pursue a full course of study" at the university.

The visa violation charges play a dual role. On the one hand, the government is trying to beef up the indictment to heighten the chance of a conviction. On the other hand, the government is sending a message more widely to students from other countries that they should not do anything but attend class, do their course work, and keep their mouths shut. One University of Idaho official told the Lewiston Morning Tribune , describing what international students are facing, "What can you do outside your subject and not put yourself at risk?"

Samir Omar Al-Hussayen was arrested after months of government surveillance. According to the L.A. Times,"Federal agents had been monitoring his e-mail account and phone records for months after a bank teller noticed large cash transactions in his accounts and called the FBI." The bank activity reportedly had to do with transactions Al-Hussayen did on behalf of the IANA, for which he was the designated agent in Idaho. This in itself violated no U.S. laws. The IANA is a legal non-profit charity. The Associated Press reported that neither the IANA nor the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation "was listed as a terrorist organization by the federal government during the years before Al-Hussayen's arrest on Feb. 26, 2003." (Since then, the government has moved to put Al-Haramain on a list of alleged terrorist financiers.)

The FBI's focus on Al-Hussayen reportedly began soon after 9/11. After Al-Hussayen's arrest, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne told the media that he had been informed about the FBI investigation shortly after 9/11--and that was why he had put concrete barriers around the Statehouse and stationed armed state troopers and National Guard troops around the building. The AP quoted him saying, "You realize I could not talk about these concerns in the state and the region. I did take significant heat for the measures I took. I think today shows those concerns were borne out." The fact that Al-Hussayen was not even being accused of planning any specific acts--let alone any plots against the Idaho state government--seems to have flown over the governor's head. But more to the point, the Idaho governor's words and actions are part of the reactionary, paranoid atmosphere and repressive attacks that have been whipped up against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian people after 9/11.

The FBI raid and Al-Hussayen's arrest had a chilling effect on the Arab and Muslim community on campus. Many Middle Eastern students sought attorneys. The Lewiston Morning Tribune reported, "Some even considered leaving school, according to UI law professor Elizabeth Brandt, who helped organize legal counsel for people being questioned and asked whether their civil rights had been abused."

A lot of the government's case during Al-Hussayen's trial could be described as absurd or even laughable--if the situation weren't so serious. At one point, for example, Al-Hussayen's lawyer noted to an FBI "intelligence analyst" that one translation of an e-mail used as evidence against the defendant said "Islamic library project"--while another translation had the phrase as "Islamic Libyan project." The agent called it a "typo."

The government's own witnesses admitted that Al-Hussayen himself did not write the calls for "jihad" that appeared on the web sites he maintained. One former military intelligence expert conceded to the defense (as reported in the Idaho Statesman ), "Al-Hussayen did not compose the articles, but took them from other sources and simply posted them on the Web site."

The prosecution tried to use two men--already convicted on "material support" charges--to testify that things they saw on the web sites maintained by Al-Hussayen moved them to action. These two men--caught in the post-9/11 frenzy against Arabs and Muslims--had been coerced into guilty pleas simply because they attended al-Qaida training camps; not for planning, let alone carrying out, any specific actions.

The judge only allowed one of these government witnesses to testify. Under defense cross-examination, this witness admitted that the web sites tied to Al-Hussayen did not influence him to go to a training camp in Pakistan. The other man (who is one of the Lackawanna 6) let it slip that he didn't even have access to the Internet until after he returned from Pakistan.

The only witness the defense called was a former CIA agent who pointed out that postings justifying suicide bombings could be found on any number of web sites--including the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which is operated by the U.S. government. He also said that one of the sites Al-Hussayen maintained "has and has had since 2001 a clear, unambiguous, almost emotionally written condemnation of terror."

Dangerous Implications

The L.A. Times pointed out in relation to the Al-Hussayen case, "The U.S. Supreme Court held in a landmark 1969 case the government could not punish advocacy of illegal action unless it was directed at `inciting or producing imminent lawless action'." The government is attempting to circumvent the 1969 Supreme Court ruling though a convoluted argument. They charge that Al-Hussayen "supported terrorism" because he posted on web sites what other people wrote --which, in turn, allegedly moved others to support or carry out terrorist acts.

It doesn't take a paranoid mind to see the dangers of this logic--how this could be used by the government to target and suppress all kinds of political speech.

As the RW has pointed out, the use of the charge of "material support" for terrorism allows the government a lot of flexibility in snaring those it politically sets its sights on. Right now, it is being used against Islamic fundamentalist forces and those accused of associating with those forces. But clearly, such charges--and more overall, laws like the USA Patriot Act--can be used to launch a broadside against leaders and organizations of revolutionary forces within the U.S.

A particularly alarming development has been the attempt by the U.S. government to conflate communist-led revolutions against reactionary governments with movements guided by reactionary ideologies. For example, the U.S. government has listed the Communist Party of Peru and the Communist Party of the Philippines as "terrorist" organizations. And the U.S. has added the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to a secondary list (of groups not yet "officially designated"). Also, the U.S. State Department recently added the Maoist Communist Centre (India), a participating party in the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People's War) to one of its lists of "terrorist" organizations.

Whatever the particular results of this trial, the way the government has pursued the case has wider--and very dangerous--implications for all those who want to speak out against injustice and stand with the struggle of oppressed people around the world.