Two young men snared in a federal terrorism investigation were unwitting admirers of accused ringleader Daniel Boyd, a charismatic and ardent Muslim they knew only as "Saifullah," the sword of God, their friends and lawyers said Wednesday.
The pair, Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan, 22, and Ziyad Yaghi, 21, met Boyd at Raleigh and Durham mosques.
There was something about Boyd, a magnetism of sorts, recalled longtime friend Kalled Shanab, 23, of Cary. He stood out.
"I wondered 'Who is this guy?' He was always smiling, so humble, just a really good guy," Shanab recalls. "He's really religious. I think that's why Omar pushed toward having a relationship with him. He helped guide them. I don't know if it was for mujahedeen or for what."
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Hassan and Yaghi wait under lockdown in the Wake County jail, facing possible sentences of life in prison along with Boyd and four others accused of plotting to kill and die for Islam. But to those who know them, they are victims of gravitating too close to Boyd, 39, a Johnston County resident who trained in Afghan terrorist camps and spent time in Pakistan aiding Afghan refugees.
"It would appear that Omar is caught up in a net that was intended to catch somebody else," said Karl Knudsen, a Raleigh lawyer who has represented Hassan in an earlier misdemeanor false imprisonment conviction and is now aiding his family. "He's also frightened out of his wits. He's scared to death."
The seven men were to appear in federal court today, but the hearing was rescheduled when lawyers requested more time to meet with their clients. At that hearing, now set for Tuesday, a judge will decide whether the suspects should be released on bail. It's also a chance for prosecutors to reveal more about their evidence.
The trip to Israel
To Knudsen, the 14-page federal indictment speaks mostly about Boyd: stockpiling weapons, practicing military tactics in Caswell County, selling a 9mm handgun to a convicted felon. Hassan is cited only in reference to a 2007 trip to Israel he took with Yaghi.
The indictment describes their trip as an attempt at violent jihad, and it says that Boyd lied to federal agents in Atlanta about his intent to meet Yaghi and Hassan in Israel. But Knudsen said Hassan's trip had nothing to do with terrorism.
"He had just broken up with his girlfriend, and a little change in scenery seemed appropriate," Knudsen said, adding that Yaghi may have had a girlfriend in Gaza. The two were denied entry in Israel, so they went instead to Jordan and Egypt, where they had friends and family, including Hassan's father.
As for the Israelis' refusal to admit Hassan and Yaghi, Knudsen said, "They have their own reasons for doing things. It could be they don't like the looks of somebody. ... especially if your name is Mohammad Omar Aly Hassan."
A brush with the law
Over time, Shanab said, his friends said less about their visits with Boyd. Shanab had known the boys since middle school. He and Hassan, next-door neighbors and first-generation Americans born to Egyptian parents, developed a fast friendship. He met Yaghi at mosque and has spent most Fridays through boyhood playing sports with him. "Sometimes," he said, "I'd ask, 'Have you talked to Saifullah?' Then, they'd talk about it only rarely."
He refused to believe his friends could be linked to any terror plot.
All three drew attention from federal agents in December, when they were part of a group charged with robbery and kidnapping. A former roommate of Yaghi's told police he was taken at gunpoint by a group of men, beaten and forced to go to an automatic teller.
Shanab said a young man they knew owed Yaghi money. Yaghi wanted to collect it.
"It's not that he needed the money," Shanab said. "He thought the kid was mistaking his kindness for weakness and that was not OK with Ziyad."
When the man with the debt went voluntarily to the ATM, then called police, he was beaten by Yaghi. That night landed the young men in the Wake County jail. Yaghi and Shanab were there for five and a half months; Hassan for 45 days.
Their stint in jail nearly broke Hassan and Yaghi's families.
"Omar's mom had to be hospitalized because of her nerves," Shanab said. Yaghi's mother, who raises him alone, wept every time he called her.
But during that scrape with the law, agents with the FBI pressed the young men about their knowledge of Daniel Boyd, Shanab said.
They all believed their phones were tapped, and investigators assured the young men that they could track their every movement, Shanab said. Yaghi's attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
"I had nothing to hide, so I didn't care," Shanab said, "but I never would have assumed they'd be targeting us."