James Ujaama's testimony in U.S. District Court in New York City last week could bolster U.S. efforts to bring three suspected al-Qaida...

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James Ujaama’s testimony in U.S. District Court in New York City last week could bolster U.S. efforts to bring three suspected al-Qaida operatives to this country for trial on terrorism charges, legal experts say.

Ujaama, who grew up in Seattle, told Judge John Keenan under oath that he sought to establish a jihad training camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999 after conferring with radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri and two of his alleged henchmen, Haroon Rashid Aswat and Oussama Kassir.

“The U.S. has more information now that [it] can use to supplement the extradition requests,” said Douglas McNabb, an expert in international extradition law with the law firm McNabb Associates in Washington, D.C. McNabb has no connection to the Ujaama case.

Since 2004, the U.S. has been trying to persuade the United Kingdom to send al-Masri to the U.S. to stand trial on an 11-count indictment related to the planned development of the Bly site and a 1998 attack in Yemen on 16 tourists, including two Americans.

Al-Masri, who is serving a seven-year sentence in the United Kingdom for fomenting racial hatred and urging his followers to kill non-Muslims, gained notoriety for his fiery preaching at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. He emerged as a militant preacher in the 1990s, and his sermons were attended by Sept. 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

In May, after several procedural delays, formal extradition proceedings against al-Masri were begun in England, and three more days of hearings are scheduled in late October, during which the U.S. could introduce Ujaama’s testimony. However, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which is handling the case, declined to say whether the U.S. plans to use it.

Aswat is being held in England, and Kassir, a Swede of Lebanese descent, is being held in the Czech Republic. He was arrested in Prague in December 2005 on an international arrest warrant.

Conspiracy described

In his testimony last week, Ujaama detailed to Judge Keenan his collaboration with the three men.

After discussing plans for the terrorist training camp in Oregon, Ujaama told the judge that al-Masri sent Kassir and Aswat to Seattle to help Ujaama raise money and develop the site, although the camp was never established.

Ujaama also said that in late 2000, “Abu Hamza [al-Masri] requested that I assist Ferroz Abassi [another al-Masri follower] to travel from London, England, to Afghanistan to attend a jihad training camp operated by a front-line commander.”

During the trip, Ujaama said, “at the direction of Abu Hamza, I delivered currency and other things to persons in the territory of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban,” the militant group that formerly controlled Afghanistan.

Ujaama had gone to great lengths to avoid making the statements he eventually delivered last week.

In 2003, the 41-year-old Ingraham High School graduate pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban, and he promised to testify against his alleged co-conspirators in exchange for a two-year prison term, which he completed in 2005.

But late last year, Ujaama got cold feet. Fearful of the retribution he might suffer if he testified, he fled to Belize in December with a fake Mexican passport.

Ujaama caught in Belize

It was a rash decision that backfired badly.

Ujaama was quickly arrested in Belize and returned to the U.S., where he was sentenced to two more years in prison for violating the terms of his supervised release. The government reinstated more serious terrorism charges against him, and it compelled him to testify against the three suspected al-Qaida operatives as part of a plea agreement reached on May 25, according to the hearing transcript.

The terms of the agreement were placed under seal. Ujaama pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to provide and conceal material support to terrorists, one count of providing and concealing material support to terrorists and one count of unlawful flight to avoid giving testimony.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, but the government presumably will recommend a shorter term in exchange for Ujaama’s renewed cooperation.

Geoff Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Essex in England, said the U.S. does not have to demonstrate that it has probable cause to extradite terrorism suspects from the U.K., so Ujaama’s statements might not be necessary to ensure that al-Masri eventually is tried in a U.S. court.

Still, McNabb said, Ujaama’s sworn statements can only bolster U.S. arguments.

“They can use this sworn testimony to help establish the charges,” McNabb said. “The more evidence you have, the stronger the case it makes.”

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724

or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com