Judge sets July trial for Cary man accused of attempting to aid terrorists

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

— Old-fashioned, gumshoe sleuthing was not what led the FBI to a Cary man accused of trying to aid an al-Qaida-linked militant group attempting to topple the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

Prosecutors said Friday that federal agents became suspicious of Basit Javed Sheikh, the 29-year-old awaiting trial on terror-related charges, only after he contacted an FBI-run Facebook page disguised as a forum for extreme Muslim views.

Sheikh was in federal court Friday in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle.

A Pakistan native who is classified as a lawful permanent resident in this country, Sheikh has been imprisoned since early November when he was arrested at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Federal agents contend that Sheikh was on his way to Turkey, where he hoped to join up with Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel force fighting Assad’s troops in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. government has declared Jabhat al-Nursa a terrorist organization, and over the past year has charged at least three U.S. residents with attempting to join the group also known as the Nusra Front.

Prosecutors proposed a trial schedule on Friday that was rejected by Boyle as too protracted. Boyle settled on July, a couple of months earlier than prosecutors had hoped, and urged the lawyers to fit their exchange of information and any plea negotiations into that time frame.

“It’s my opinion that a matter of sensitive national security needs to go to the front of the line, not the back of the line, for the court’s attention,” Boyle said.

Prosecutor’s concerns

Prosecutors had asked for more time so the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and other law enforcement organizations from around the globe could go through their data and intelligence.

Prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said the organizations needed time to comb their files with an eye toward protecting their intelligence-gathering methods and any sources who might be compromised if the information were revealed.

Kellhofer also said he wanted to comb the information for any details that might help defense lawyers with claims of innocence, as required by law.

“Once that information is located, which is a hurdle in and of itself, we need to see that it can be declassified,” Kellhofer said.

Defense attorney Joseph Gilbert has agreed to a protective order, which means he will not share sensitive information with the public.

The FBI contends that Sheikh wrote messages online expressing an interest in joining the Nusra Front. Federal agents have been on the lookout for U.S. residents expressing a desire to fight with the group.

Others arrested

Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from suburban Chicago, was arrested in April at O’Hare International Airport as he prepared for the first leg of a trip to join the group, according to federal court documents. Tounisi, American-born, has pleaded not guilty.

In September, federal authorities in northern Virginia released a U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the jihadist group after a secret plea deal. Eric Harroun, 31, had faced up to life in prison. But defense lawyers argued there was confusion about which rebel group Harroun had joined, that Harroun traveled to Syria planning to fight with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and that fighting with the FSA was not a crime.

Though Sheikh’s attorney did not offer a glimpse of his defense at the hearing in Raleigh on Friday, terror law experts have said that the Cary man’s case underscores what they argue is a hypocrisy of prosecuting U.S. residents supporting anti-Assad groups that the government has declared terrorists while aiding others in the conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives over the past two and a half years.

Sheikh’s misadventure

Sheikh, prosecutors contend, was drawn to the FBI Facebook site last spring after spending several weeks in Turkey in 2012.

Sheikh, described in previous court hearings by his mother as a depressed and lonely young adult who spent long hours searching the Internet, then engaged in online chats with a confidential informant posing as a female nurse in Syria.

Those exchanges became personal and evolved into a more romantic tone, according to attorneys involved with the case, before Sheikh was put in touch with another FBI contact. That contact, according to prosecutors, posed as a person who could lead Sheikh to the Nusra Front.

Gilbert, his public defender, said Friday that he looked forward to more details about those exchanges as he mapped out a defense.

Sheikh’s family was in the courtroom on Friday but declined to discuss the case afterward.

Held without bail

The defense renewed a request to release Sheikh from prison while he awaited trial. Gilbert said the prison had not agreed to meet Sheikh’s special dietary needs while he is incarcerated, and put him on a vegan diet.

“I’m worried about his nutrition,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert suggested putting Sheikh under house arrest with his parents to address his fragile mental state and dietary issues.

“Chronologically, he’s 30, but he’s much younger than that,” Gilbert said,

Boyle said he had reviewed the bail issue a week ago and unless he heard something different and new, he had no plans to release someone he considered a flight risk and danger to the community.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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