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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Crime & Courts

Phone conversations key in case against Tampa terror suspect

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Published:   |   Updated: February 24, 2014 at 12:22 AM

TAMPA - More than a year before Sami Osmakac was charged in an FBI sting, U.S. investigators were secretly monitoring his phone conversations.

He talked about black flags, a symbol of al-Quaeda, and about his admiration for Sheik Anwar Awlaqi, an American-born cleric authorities believe recruited for the al-Quaeda and inspired attacks, including the Fort Hood shooting.

On Dec. 15, 2010, Osmakac spoke to a friend, Russell Dennison, on the phone, apparently about comments being posted on YouTube videos Osmakac had made.

"Oh there's some guy Alex or some kind of name," Osmakac said, according to a government transcript. "He commented on all my videos and some kuffar (infidel). ..."

"Yeah I see," Dennison said. "The other people, they're atheists, man. ... They retarded, they think everything is a joke man."

"Yeah," Osmakac said. "Until the black flags come on top of everybody's head and the head flies off, we will see what the joke."

Federal prosecutors plan to use the transcripts at Osmakac's upcoming trial on charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered machine gun. Authorities allege Osmakac planned a terrorist attack in Tampa in January 2012, plotting to set off a car bomb, then take hostages and demand the release of Muslim prisoners.

The defense is arguing Osmakac was entrapped and that because of mental illness, he was susceptible to being influenced.

The prosecution maintains that the phone conversations show Osmakac was predisposed to violent attacks before the FBI began its sting and that he was driven by his admiration for al-Quaeda.

According to the transcripts, Osmakac and Dennison spoke again on Jan. 18 and 19, 2011, nearly a year before Osmakac was arrested. This time, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney, the two were talking about al-Qyaeda's "Inspire" magazine and an article written by Awlaqi, who gave his blessing to "dispossessing the wealth of some nonbelievers in America." They spoke of using force to take the property of American non-Muslims, Sweeney said.

"Yo, it's what I've been talking about," Osmakac said on Jan. 18. "It's what I've been thinking."

The next day, Osmakac again referred to the sheik's statement. "It was beautiful," he said.

The recordings and most of the transcripts are classified, but portions were shown in federal court Friday during a hearing addressing several issues related to the trial scheduled for May.

Lawyers hinted during the hearing that a trial may not be necessary because it's possible Osmakac may strike a plea deal. As she was wrapping up the court session, the judge asked if she could assume there were no ongoing negotiations to settle the case with a guilty plea without a need for a trial.

"I do not want to say that in open court," Sweeney said. And so the judge called the lawyers to her bench for a sidebar conversation on that issue.

During the open hearing, defense lawyer George Tragos argued that evidence about Osmakac reading "Inspire" magazine should not be admitted in the trial because it's irrelevant and would serve only to inflame jurors, to argue that "the fact that he reads a Muslim magazine and therefore all the articles he must believe and must be guilty." The fact that Osmakac read the magazine, Tragos said, "doesn't make him a criminal. ... Not all Muslims are radical extremists."

Sweeney said the sole purpose of Inspire is "instructing people how to commit violent jihad."

Sweeney noted that the issue of the magazine Osmakac was discussing on the recording also contained an article about the AK-47, described as the "weapon of choice amongst the Mujahideen," or holy warriors.

One of the first things Osmakac requested from the FBI undercover agent, Sweeney said, was an AK-47. But Sweeney offered no proof that Osmakac read that article.

"I read the Old Testament," observed U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven, "but I'm not going to release plagues on the universe."

Sweeney said she plans to present expert testimony during the trial from Evan Kohlmann, who is listed online as a contributor to Counterterrorism Blog, which describes him as an international terrorism consultant with years of experience tracking and analyzing Al-Qaida and other global terrorist movements.

A 2010 profile in New York magazine, said Kohlmann's expertise is controversial among critics of the government, saying that while he is respected in some quarters, he "sees danger everywhere he looks" and had at that time testified to help convict 23 defendants in federal courts and the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay.

In response to a government motion, Scriven has granted the prosecution's star witness, an undercover FBI employee, unusual protections. For example, he will be permitted to testify using a pseudonym and will be behind a screen, viewable only by jurors, the defendant, lawyers and court personnel. The defense will not be allowed to ask about his pseudonym or even raise the fact that it is not the witness' real name, which the jurors will not know.

After hearing from Sweeney in a closed court session, Scriven also agreed to restrict the defense from questioning the witness in any detail about his background and past experiences. For example, he has been involved in 15 prior undercover investigations, but the defense will not be permitted to ask how many of them involved national security.

Tragos complained the restrictions will inhibit his ability on cross-examination to ferret out the truth.

"The search for the truth is often hampered by rules of privilege," Scriven replied.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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