Saturday, October 02, 2004

Tracing Militants on a Staten Island Phone

The New York Times
October 2, 2004

Tracing Militants on a Staten Island Phone

For the last three months, the defendant who has drawn the most attention in a terror trial under way in Manhattan federal court is Lynne F. Stewart, who made a name as a defense lawyer for suspects accused of terrorism. But as the prosecutors' case has unfolded, most of the evidence about the international conspiracy they hope to prove has centered on a defendant who sits silently beside her, Ahmed Abdel Sattar.

A Staten Island postal worker and a Muslim, Mr. Sattar served as a paralegal aide for Ms. Stewart in the 1995 trial of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the elderly blind Islamic cleric who is serving a life sentence in a United States prison for plotting terrorist attacks in New York.

In the years after that trial, the evidence reveals, Mr. Sattar made hundreds of phone calls from his cramped apartment to fundamentalist followers of the sheik across the globe, from Britain to Egypt to Afghanistan. Through conference calls he arranged, Mr. Sattar became a gatekeeper for communications between far-flung Islamic militants, eventually joining their debates about using violence.

Mr. Sattar faces the most serious charges in this trial, including one count of conspiracy to kill and kidnap people in a foreign country, which carries a maximum life sentence. Kenneth A. Paul, one of his lawyers, said in an opening statement on June 23 that Mr. Sattar was "politically frustrated" but never intended to plan or incite violence.

For her part, Ms. Stewart is accused of helping Mr. Abdel Rahman communicate a call to war against Egypt's government from a federal prison cell where he was supposed to be incommunicado. She faces charges that carry a maximum of 10 years, as does a third defendant, Mohamed Yousry, a translator of Arabic.

Along with Ms. Stewart, Mr. Sattar was one of a handful of people permitted to communicate directly with the sheik in prison. But the prosecutors' evidence has indicated that he went a step further. After he was eagerly sought out by followers of the sheik in the Gamaa Islamiya - the Islamic Group, a militant organization in Egypt - he became a participant in their deliberations about war and peace.

Records of Mr. Sattar's phone calls, which were wiretapped, show that his calling quickened in the fall of 2000, when the group's leaders were embroiled in a fierce dispute over whether to continue a cease-fire in their long war against the Egyptian government or return to terror attacks. Although Mr. Sattar was not a member of the group, he favored - at least in statements in the government's transcripts - those who wanted to abandon the truce.

In a moment of rage over political clashes in Israel, Mr. Sattar helped an Islamic Group leader who was in Afghanistan compose a religious edict and release it under the sheik's name without asking the sheik. It summoned young Muslims to fight Jews "by all possible means of jihad, either by killing them as individuals or by targeting their interests and their advocates, as much as they can."

Mr. Sattar's lawyers declined to comment in detail before he testifies in his own defense in the next few weeks. But they said they would fill in the context of his phone calls to show that he was trying to help men he regarded as Muslim brothers, not to participate in a plan for violence. "It clearly was never his intent for anyone to be killed," Mr. Paul said.

In court, Mr. Sattar is being confronted with his own words. The prosecutors' evidence consists overwhelmingly of transcripts of wiretap recordings that were among some 90,000 intercepted conversations on his home phone made between March 1995 and March 2002, as part of a federal foreign intelligence investigation.

Now the man who talked so much sits silent day after day, watching the prosecutors re-enact his phone calls, reading out English transcripts of the Arabic dialogue. With the jury as their audience, the prosecutors take turns reading, in flat voices, the words of Mr. Sattar, Ms. Stewart, the sheik and others.

The defense lawyers have sought to bar some transcripts, but in general they have not challenged the authenticity of the calls. The transcripts show that Mr. Sattar spoke regularly with men identified by the American authorities as terrorists. The prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that the phone calls - Mr. Sattar's words - added up to a conspiracy to kill.

Mr. Sattar, 45, was born in Cairo and raised in Egypt, serving two years in his country's army before coming to the United States as a tourist in 1982. He stayed, married an American citizen and in 1989 became a naturalized American. His wife, Lisa Sattar, a Catholic, converted to Islam; they have four children. He went to work in 1988 in the main post office branch in Staten Island.

He was drawn to Mr. Abdel Rahman, a fellow Egyptian, after the cleric came to the United States in 1990 and began preaching in mosques in Brooklyn and New Jersey. In sermons full of fury, the sheik railed against the Egyptian government, calling for it to be overthrown and replaced with an Islamic state.

Certified as a paralegal aide in the sheik's terrorism trial, Mr. Sattar was deeply disappointed when Mr. Abdel Rahman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Mr. Paul, his defense lawyer, said. He continued to support the sheik, even starting a diaper and baby goods business from his home to raise money for him in prison.

The transcripts show it pained Mr. Sattar that the sheik, held in solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary in Minnesota, was barred by special restrictions from speaking with anyone outside the prison but his legal team and his closest family, and could not participate in communal Friday prayers.

"There is not a prisoner in the United States who suffers like he does," Mr. Sattar said in one phone call to the sheik's son, Mohammed, who was in Afghanistan.

The sheik has signed a power of attorney for Mr. Sattar. "I trust him with everything I have," the sheik said in one statement he sent out of prison through Ms. Stewart. "I testify that he does not speak anything but the truth."

Mr. Sattar's phone calls offer a glimpse inside the hidden network of Islamic Group militants in the midst of a clash between two leaders. On one side is Sheik Salah Hashim, the group's leader in Egypt, an outspoken proponent of the cease-fire.

His adversary is Rifai Ahmed Taha, an associate of Osama bin Laden who was named by Washington in a 1998 executive order as a "specially designated terrorist." Mr. Taha is accused of conspiring in the 1997 attack at the ancient Egyptian ruins in Luxor, where 58 foreign tourists were killed. Public outrage over those killings led the Islamic Group to announce the cease-fire later that year.

Also on the line with Mr. Sattar were Mustafa Hamza, another exiled Islamic Group leader, and Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer representing its members who were in Egypt's jails. Both favored continuing the peace. Mr. Sattar also spoke with Yasir al-Sirri, an Egyptian exile who was a one-man clearinghouse in London for information about radical fundamentalists.

In the conversations before 2000, Mr. Sattar seemed to stay aloof from the group's internal feuds, simply connecting phone calls among its members. But he began to change in June of that year after Mr. Abdel Rahman issued a statement, relayed to the international press by Ms. Stewart in defiance of the prison rules, withdrawing his support for the cease-fire.

The transcripts indicate that Mr. Sattar helped sharpen the language that the sheik dictated in prison to Ms. Stewart and her translator, then rushed the news of the cleric's new position in a flurry of calls to Islamic Group members overseas. Mr. Hamza, who prosecutors said was in Afghanistan, protested the sheik's shift and pleaded with Mr. Sattar not to release it to the press.

"I can try to control it," Mr. Sattar says, starting to assert new influence as an intermediary.

In the following weeks, Mr. Sattar set up conference calls and then remained on the line while Mr. Hashim and Mr. Taha argued angrily. Mr. Taha said the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak "must be removed, and will not be removed except by using armed force."

"We are in a difficult stage; we can't use force at all," Mr. Hashim insisted, as Mr. Sattar listened.

At the time of these exchanges, Mr. Taha appeared with Mr. bin Laden on a videotape, apparently made in Afghanistan, which was broadcast on Sept. 21, 2000, by Al Jazeera, the Arab language television network. Together they call for violent worldwide jihad, or religious struggle, to free Mr. Abdel Rahman from jail.

Two days later Mr. Taha called Mr. Sattar to get his reaction. "The words caused such an impact," Mr. Sattar cheered.

A turning point for Mr. Sattar came in late September 2000, during an upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Coming home from the post office each day, the transcripts show, he immediately goes to monitor Arab news Web sites and television. The images all look to him like Israeli attacks on innocent Palestinian civilians, according to the transcripts.

"Animals, animals, I swear by God the Almighty," Mr. Sattar said, referring to the Israelis, his slight stutter accentuated by his agitation. When Mr. Taha called, Mr. Sattar urged him to compose a religious decree that they could attribute to the sheik. Later he edited Mr. Taha's draft.

"Kill the Jews wherever they are found," it says.

Their taped conversations suggest that Mr. Sattar removed words that explicitly threatened the United States. Instead, he said he believed it was up to the Arab nations surrounding Israel "to wage the jihad."

Several days later, when Mr. Abdel Rahman was informed of the religious decree during a prison phone call, he approved its message.

Mr. Sattar's nights became sleepless as he started receiving calls at all hours. He was contacted by an Islamic Group militant, Alaa Atia, who was in hiding in southern Egypt. While Mr. Taha tried to persuade Mr. Atia to organize an armed attack, Mr. Sattar worked to arrange to send him money to escape from Egypt.

Then he received news that Mr. Atia had been killed by the Egyptian police. In agonized calls, Mr. Sattar was heard worrying that he may have inadvertently helped the police locate him.

"The Lord Almighty knows how I feel," Mr. Sattar said. "I feel guilty, guilty. I am telling you I suspect it is 90 percent my phone." At the same time he more plainly promoted Mr. Taha within the group. "The man has a worthwhile viewpoint; the least to do is to hear it," he said. Mr. Sattar was arrested in April 2002. No evidence has been presented that he was involved in a specific act of violence. None of the charges in the case involve plans for attacks in the United States. The government expects to rest its case next week.

Ms. Stewart's lawyers have repeatedly asked to have her trial separated from Mr. Sattar's. She has said she was not aware of his extensive phone communications with the Islamic Group.

"This is really a case about words," said the defense lawyer, Mr. Paul, a case in which Mr. Sattar is accused of causing terrorism by speaking about it. Mr. Sattar "is no enemy of the United States," Mr. Paul said. "He is certainly not a terrorist."