James Ujaama, the Seattle man who pleaded guilty in 2003 to aiding the Taliban, admitted to a federal judge in New York on Monday that he...

Share story

James Ujaama, the Seattle man who pleaded guilty in 2003 to aiding the Taliban, admitted to a federal judge in New York on Monday that he fled to Belize last year to avoid testifying against his alleged co-conspirators.

Ujaama, 41, also pleaded guilty Monday to three terrorism charges, including a conspiracy charge related to Ujaama’s efforts to establish a jihad-training camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999.

The government had dropped the terrorism charges against Ujaama in 2003 after he agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in exchange for a two-year prison term.

Ujaama now faces up to 30 years in prison on the new charges against him. He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 12 in New York.

Ujaama has negotiated a new plea agreement with the government, according to federal officials, but the terms of the deal were placed under seal. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Ujaama’s lawyer, Peter Offenbecher, did not return a call seeking comment.

The new charges are a stark turnaround for Ujaama, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to a lesser charge of conspiring to aid the outlaw Taliban government in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Federal officials have called Ujaama’s help crucial in the 2004 indictment of Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri on charges of trying to establish the training camp and providing aid to al-Qaida.

In exchange for the two-year prison sentence, which he completed in 2005, Ujaama agreed to testify against several high-profile alleged terrorism supporters, including al-Masri and at least two of al-Masri’s alleged henchmen, Oussama Kassir and Haroon Rashid Aswat.

Aswat has been questioned about the July 7, 2005, London subway and bus bombings that killed 56. All three men have been indicted in the U.S. in connection with the Bly training-camp plot.

Ujaama fled the U.S. with a fake Mexican passport on Dec. 5 of last year.

He was arrested outside a mosque in Belize on Dec. 18 after a scuffle with local police. Belize authorities said they were alerted by the international police agency Interpol that Ujaama was in the country.

Ujaama was returned to Seattle, and in February U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein sentenced him to two years in prison for violating the terms of his supervised release.

“You violated the trust I put in you,” Rothstein told Ujaama.

By violating the 2003 plea agreement, Ujaama paved the way for the government to reinstate the much heftier terrorism charges it previously had dropped.

Ujaama said Monday he fled because he did not want to testify against al-Masri.

Ujaama had said he feared for his life, but federal officials said they aren’t convinced his life was in danger. They believe Ujaama may have been attempting to regain credibility within some radical Muslim circles by fleeing to avoid testifying against al-Masri, Kassir and Aswat.

Ujaama, who attended Seattle’s Ingraham High School, initially came under FBI scrutiny after agents learned that in 1999 he traveled from London to Seattle and stayed at the now-defunct Dar-us-Salaam mosque in the Central Area. After visiting a small ranch near Bly with others from the mosque, Ujaama contacted al-Masri to say he had found a site for jihad training in America.

Al-Masri, in turn, sent Aswat and Kassir to Bly to investigate the property. They were disappointed and left, but not before Kassir said publicly that he wanted to kill Ujaama.

After his initial arrest as a material witness in 2002, Ujaama released a statement: “The fact is that I am innocent of any wrongdoing and am fully prepared to face my accusers and defend myself in a court of law.”

He was charged that summer with conspiracy to aid al-Qaida and plotting to “kill and maim” people outside the U.S. Ujaama pleaded guilty in April 2003 to one count of conspiring to provide cash, computers and fighters to the Taliban.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.