A half-dozen young men could spend the rest of their lives in prison for rubbing shoulders with a man who federal investigators say stockpiled military weapons and ranted about plots to murder those without faith in Islam.
At the end of a two-day hearing to determine whether seven Triangle terrorism suspects could be released before their trials, prosecutors said they have a pile of evidence against the supposed ringleader, Daniel Boyd. Against the others: vague connections and travel plans that defense attorneys say they can easily explain away.
Boyd and five of the young men were denied bail Wednesday. Another had his hearing continued.
Boyd and the six other men were arrested last week after federal investigators wrapped up a four-year investigation linking the Triangle men to a home-grown terror plot. An eighth accused man is at large, thought to be in Pakistan.
Prosecutors pegged Boyd, a 39-year-old drywaller from Johnston County, as the ringleader and arrested the six younger men, including two of his sons. In Boyd's truck and at his home in Willow Spring, agents found gas masks, 26 guns and 27,000 rounds of ammunition.
The lives of the suspects who have been deemed too dangerous to be turned loose before trial are, for the moment, frozen.
Dylan Boyd and Hysen Sherifi will miss the births of their first children. Omar Hassan has a fiancée waiting at home.
Zenaat Abdel-Gawad, Dylan Boyd's pregnant wife, watched her husband shuffle out of a federal courtroom Wednesday, mumbling words of peace to him in Arabic. The men offered faint smiles and cupped their hands in gestures that symbolized a request for prayers.
Now, defense attorneys must wade through garbled audio recordings and try to size up an unidentified informant who is carrying the weight of accusations on his shoulders.
Prosecutors this week played audio recordings captured by the wired informant, who posed as a friend and conspirator to Boyd and his clan. Prosecutors showed pictures of an arsenal of guns, potent enough to rip through body armor and voluminous enough to wage a violent battle. They recounted Daniel Boyd's adventures, which by his telling, placed him in the thick of a civil war in Afghanistan two decades before, training in terrorist camps. They said the group practiced shooting in Caswell County.
"There is a single isolated incident of my client firing a gun, and there's nothing to suggest it was illegal," said attorney Dan Boyce of his client, Omar Hassan.
Joe Zeszotarski, who represents Dylan Boyd, Daniel's son, pressed an FBI agent to figure out what his client was accused of doing.
"There's no information about what Dylan actually did," he said.
Supporters who came to court this week were left scratching their heads, wondering how the evidence they heard stacked up to a terror plot with Daniel Boyd as its mastermind.
"Anybody who knows Boyd knows he likes to talk and talk and talk," said Hisham Sarsour, a friend of the defendants. "There is no evidence he has done something illegal."
Weight of the evidence
U.S. Magistrate Judge William A. Webb also raised questions about the heft of the government's evidence. In the end, he decided that the accumulation of information presented made turning the defendants loose too risky.
All had ties abroad. Only two presented a trustworthy relative to act as a sort of guardian if they were set free before trial.
"In the context of persons engaging in military-style training, stockpiling weapons not typically used for hunting, I think this is evidence of more," Webb said.
Aly Hassan, father of Omar Hassan, had begged Webb on Tuesday to let his son come home. The elder Hassan, a car salesman, agreed to have his son wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and promised to call police if his son got out of line.
The Hassan family dabbed their eyes as they walked from the courthouse Wednesday. They had hoped the magistrate would determine that Omar had little or no part in the scheme and let him free to marry his fiancée and return to classes at N.C. State University.
"All of the family is disappointed," said Aly Hassan.
One defendant, Anes Subasic, has his hearing continued until another translator is hired.
Who is the informant?
The bulk of the government's evidence of terrorism plots points to Daniel Boyd. A mysterious informant who befriended Boyd and feigned enthusiasm for violent jihad recorded Boyd over several years. With audio recording devices wired to his body, the informant captured Boyd talking about committing attacks both here and abroad, prosecutors say.
Webb questioned the credibility of the informant after an FBI agent said that the word "beach" was code for "violent jihad" in conversations between the suspects.
"Why should I credit an unnamed, unidentified, uncharacterized individual as being credible?" Webb asked.
The government's informant may never set foot in the courtroom; his name may never be revealed to attorneys defending those charged, legal experts say.
Informants are not usually willing participants in federal investigations, which can involve organized crime or gang hierarchies, said Sara Sue Beale, a Duke University law professor. Because this case potentially involves national security, prosecutors may have even more leeway to shield the informant's identity.
"Once you get into national security issues, it's a whole other world," said David Rudolph, a Charlotte defense attorney who practices in federal court.
Whispering in chains
Emotions ran high among the defendants' families, who were forced to return home without their loved ones. Before the hearing resumed Wednesday, Daniel Boyd's wife, Sabrina, leaned against a bench and chatted with her husband of more than 20 years. Daniel Boyd laughed lightly and smiled, but their words were shared in whispers, as he turned his body, latched and linked by chains and shackles.
After the hearing, Sabrina Boyd, slight beneath a robe that hid all but her eyes, escorted her teenage son and daughter and pregnant daughter-in-law into an elevator.
Outside, met with a bank of reporters, Sabrina Boyd offered her thanks to supporters.
"We all love our family members, and we're just trying to be patient at this time," she said in a small but clear voice.
A group of men formed a ring around her, blocking cameras with their hands, elbowing journalists who leaned closer to capture the robed woman's words. Sabrina Boyd climbed into a black Mercedes and drove away.