Unbeknownst to most Americans, federal prosecutors opened their case recently in the terrorism trial of a young American who studied under two Taliban-tied imams in California and whose grandfather was Pakistan’s minister of religion in the 1980’s.
The trial of Hamid Hayat, 23, is not taking place in the dark of night nor in a military tribunal from which the media is barred. It is in an open California courtroom, the very kind that has been overrun for trials of the likes of Scott Peterson and O.J. Simpson. Yet in the month of February, the New York Times had exactly one story on the alleged terror cell in Lodi, California. The Washington Post had none. And on the cable news channels, the trial has received scant attention.
Not that the trial suffers from lack of excitement. Hayat confessed that he had attended terror training in Pakistan, the video of which jurors saw last week. An FBI informant who had befriended the defendant—while wearing a wire—testified that Hayat would offer praise for “martyrs” and the Taliban, while professing disgust for America.
Adding further intrigue to the case is the high-profile status of the defendant’s grandfather, Qari Saeed ur Rehman. The former minister of religion in Pakistan, Rehman is the founder and still the head of the Jamia Islamia madrassa, an Islamic school believed to be deeply radical.
Hayat’s mosque in Lodi, California was headed by two imams who appear to have long, deep ties to the Taliban. The two had intended to establish an Islamic school in Lodi modeled after one they had run in Pakistan, which counts among its graduates and teachers many high-ranking members of the Taliban. Both men were deported last year.
The most tantalizing tidbit, though, is one not yet addressed at the trial. Hamid Hayat and his father, Umer, were stopped at Dulles International Airport as they were preparing to fly to Pakistan in April 2003. Agents discovered that between them, the father, an ice cream vendor, and son, a farm hand, had $28,093 in cash. (Any amount in excess of $10,000 must be declared.) Most of the money was confiscated, though neither was arrested. Yet the mystery remains: how did two menial laborers stumble into that much cash?
Almost none of these details, however, have made their way into the national media. Local papers have dutifully covered the terrorism trial, but major outlets in Washington and New York have mostly ignored it.
While miniscule coverage could be explained away by the fact that only Hayat is standing trial for attending terrorism training camps (his father’s trial on lying about his son’s travels starts this week), the Sacramento Bee last summer reported that authorities now believe that seven men from the Lodi mosque also traveled to Pakistan for training.
Such a scenario would not be shocking given what is known about the two now-deported imams, Mohammad Adil Khan and Shabbir Ahmed, both of whom were imported from Pakistan. Evidence presented at Ahmed’s deportation hearings (Adil Khan did not challenge his deportation) indicated that several high-ranking Taliban members were students and later teachers at the Karachi-based Jamia Farooqia.
The madrassa also apparently also had a fan in bin Laden himself. Citing classified documents, the Sacramento Bee reported, “Bin Laden, in a 1998 news conference, counted the scholars of the Farooqia school among his supporters.”
Ahmed, for his part, admitted to delivering fiery anti-American sermons in Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, in which he encouraged his followers to take up arms against the United States. That November, the Boston Globe quoted Ahmed calling for armed revolution against Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf: “Whoever is against Islam, we will destroy him. If this is rebellion, we are not afraid of rebellion. Blood is going to be spilled in Pakistan.”
Just months later, Shabbir Ahmed was granted a visa to come the United States.
Ahmed was recruited to Lodi by his mentor, Adil Khan, because the latter wanted to be replaced as imam in order to focus his energies on building an Islamic school modeled after Jamia Farooqia. He came disturbingly close to realizing his goal. Before the small town of 60,000 was rocked by the arrests of the imams and three others last June, Lodi officials had approved development of the new school. (The approval has since been rescinded, though technically only because of zoning concerns.)
At least local media outlets in Northern California are covering the Hayat trial. Imam Ali al-Timimi was convicted last year of instructing his followers to wage jihad against the United States. Nine of his followers have been convicted. All this happened in Northern Virginia, yet the Washington Post ran just a handful of stories before al-Timimi’s conviction.
Once the guilty verdict was handed down, though, the Post made it a prominent story—by editorializing on his behalf, arguing that the life sentence was “too harsh.” The paper’s reasoning? His followers didn’t wage successful jihad, thus it wasn’t as serious.
Is this the new media barometer, that terrorism is only worth reporting if it’s successful?
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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