A Pakistani-born Chicago taxi driver who prosecutors say could be heard on FBI wiretaps discussing a plan to bomb a stadium pleaded guilty Monday to attempting to send money to a Pakistani-based terrorist with alleged ties to al-Qaida.
Standing before a federal judge in an orange jumpsuit and his ankles shackled, Raja Lahrasib Khan, 58, said he was pleading guilty to one count of two counts of attempting to provide material support terrorism. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped the other count.
The agreement recommends a sentence of between five and eight years, well short of the maximum 15 years for a conviction of a single count of providing material support. A sentencing date was set for May 30, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Outside court, defense attorney Thomas Durkin said finding jurors who could give his client a fair trial would have been difficult, suggesting that was one reason Khan accepted the deal with prosecutors.
"The word `al-Qaida' scares the bejesus out of people and that's all (jurors) have to hear," he said. "But it was a difficult case ... and the (agreement) was fair under the circumstances."
Prosecutors did not speak to reporters after Monday's hearing.
Khan was arrested in 2010 and accused of taking steps to send cash to Pakistan-based terrorist leader Ilyas Kashmiri after Kashmiri indicated he needed money to buy explosives. Khan, prosecutors said, believed Kashmiri was getting his orders from Osama bin Laden.
Khan, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1988, sent $950 in 2009 to an individual in Pakistan for delivery to Kashmiri; he also took $1,000 from an undercover agent and said it would be used to buy weapons and possibly other supplies, prosecutors alleged.
A 35-page complaint affidavit filed after Khan's arrest also accused him of discussing the possibility of planting bags of bombs around an unspecified stadium, saying in one wiretap, "Put one bag here, one there, one there ... you know, boom, boom, boom, boom."
Khan, though, was never charged with such an attempted attack as prosecutors focused instead on allegations the he sent money intended as aid for Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida
"I believe everyone came to a conclusion that he was not an imminent danger," Durkin said.
As he entered the Chicago courtroom Monday, the bald, bearded Khan blew a kiss to his wife sitting on a spectators' bench, and she returned the gesture. Khan leaned into a courtroom lectern as the judge asked him if he understood the implications of pleading guilty.
"You understand you have a right to plead not guilty?" U.S. District Judge James Zagel asked Khan.
"Yes," he responded in a hushed voice.
Khan said he also understood that, as part of his agreement with the government, he must cooperate with federal authorities whenever they approach him for his assistance.
Prosecutors' case hinged on secret recordings, including in Khan's taxicab, and of Khan and undercover agents.
In one conversation recounted in the 2010 complaint, Khan allegedly said Americans must suffer to fully grasp the plight of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Khan is the latest terrorism suspect in the Chicago area to waive his right to a trial by cutting a plea deal.
In a separate case, Lebanese immigrant Sami Samir Hassoun recently agreed to plead guilty to placing a backpack he thought held a bomb near the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field, in a deal experts have said may reflect the odds he, and other terror suspects, face at trial.
Prosecutors also sometimes prefer not going to trial, partly to avoid revelations in court that could inspire copycats or inadvertently aid would-be terrorists honing their own plots.