Baltimorean given a 15-year term as 'would-be terrorist'

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Mahmud F. Brent never blew up a bridge, shot an innocent civilian or plotted to attack a military base.

Instead, he attended a training camp in Pakistan five years ago that was run by the armed wing of a religious organization that is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government. And that was enough yesterday for a federal judge to sentence the former cabdriver from Baltimore to 15 years in prison.

Judge Loretta A. Preska of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York called Brent's actions "of the most serious variety," adding that the prison term "if anything, is on the low side" of the federal sentencing guidelines.

Brent, 32, was charged in August 2005 under a federal law that prohibits the providing of material support to a terrorist organization. It is a charge that has been brought against dozens of defendants since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the government's campaign to catch terrorists before they can strike.

But the federal law focuses more on the intentions of a would-be terrorist than on the acts of a successful one, legal experts say. Some critics contend that the law is too broad and say it snares defendants who had little likelihood of ever committing an overt act of terrorism.

"It's a very attractive tool for the government, who, in a preventative paradigm, want to go after people before they do something terrible," said Professor David D. Cole of Georgetown University Law Center. "But it also means that the law sweeps within its purview people who would have never done anything at all."

Cole noted the so-called Lackawanna sleeper cell case, in which six Yemeni-Americans living in upstate New York went to Afghanistan, trained in an al-Qaida camp and met Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2001.

Critics have questioned whether the men, who were convicted of providing material support to al-Qaida and received prison sentences of up to 10 years, would have ever carried out terrorist acts in the United States.

Brent's lawyer called his client naive and immature, and asked for a lesser sentence, contending that there was no evidence that Brent had ever intended to act on his training.

Federal prosecutors used a variety of investigative tools, including cooperating witnesses and secretly recorded meetings, to show that Brent knew what he was doing when he went to the jihadist outpost in early 2002. The camp was run by Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, an Islamic extremist group whose name roughly translates as "Army of the Pure."

"Once in Pakistan, Brent spent weeks at the LET camp, learning everything from how to use automatic weapons to how to build bombs," prosecutors wrote in court documents filed this week. "When Brent's training was finished, he returned to the United States, and waited for the time and place to put his terrorist training to use."

Federal agents linked Brent to a jazz musician in the Bronx, an Islamic bookstore owner in Brooklyn and a Boca Raton doctor - and charged each of them with terrorism-related activities. Tarik Shah, the jazz bassist, pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Rafiq Sabir, the Florida doctor, was convicted in May and has yet to be sentenced. The fourth defendant, Abdulrahman Farhane, who ran a religious bookstore, pleaded guilty to related charges and was sentenced in April to 13 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Shah met Brent at Howard University, where Brent attended classes but did not graduate. Later, Brent became a paramedic and taxi driver while continuing his studies with Shah.

"This is the guy who also went by the name Mahmud al-Mutazzim," Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl N. Metzner told a jury while describing Brent at a trial of a co- defendant earlier this year.

Shah told authorities he had trained Brent in 2001 when they lived in Beacon, about 55 miles north of New York City. The training ended after the Sept. 11 attacks, when officials at the local mosque essentially kicked them out, according to court papers.

But the teacher turned against Brent when Shah became an FBI informant. Shah was arrested by the FBI in May 2005 and charged with conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaida. His address book had contained a telephone number for "Mahmud Almutazzim" that matched the listing for Brent's wife at their Baltimore home in Gwynn Oak.

In a recorded conversation with an undercover FBI agent, Shah mentioned the names of several students, including that of Mahmud Almutazzim, whom he had trained in martial arts and who attended training camps in Afghanistan and Yemen.

A number listed for "Sayfullah" was traced to an address used by Seifullah Chapman, prosecutors said. Chapman was among 11 Muslims charged with taking part in paramilitary training, including playing paintball in Virginia, to prepare for holy war abroad. His federal prison sentence for terrorism and firearms charges was reduced to 65 years.

Chapman has steadfastly declared that the case against him is a sham, and Muslim groups have characterized the federal prosecutions as religious persecution.

After his arrest, Shah agreed to meet with Brent and to allow the FBI to secretly monitor the encounter. Shah and Brent met at a Howard County hotel where Shah said he wanted to "travel." Brent replied that his connections were "kinda gone" in light of what had been happening in the community and said his only connection was "doing time now."

Still, Brent encouraged Shah to go to the camps and agreed to provide any assistance he could. Brent said his decision to go to the training camps was "one of the better decisions in my life."

When Brent was arrested later that year, the FBI searched his Baltimore home. They recovered a jihadist recruiting video called The Martyrs of Bosnia and recordings by radical clerics. Brent's computer was analyzed at the FBI lab. They found evidence that he had visited a Web site for jihadist training camps that listed the address, e-mail address, and telephone number for Lashkar-e-Tayyaba's office in Lahore, Pakistan, in the months before his trip.

"In light of his efforts to make himself into a deadline terrorist operative with unfettered access to the United States, Brent should receive a sentence of 180 months imprisonment, which is the maximum permitted by his count of conviction," prosecutors wrote in court papers.

Federal guidelines call for a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.

Yesterday, Brent elected to stay silent, forgoing his chance to speak directly to the judge. Supporters, who filled the courtroom yesterday, wrote letters on his behalf, but those letters were not made part of the public record.

Prosecutors contended that Brent shows no remorse.

Brent's lawyer, Hassen Ibn Abdellah, argued that his client looked at Web sites and underwent training without ever taking part in the kinds of actions that terrorist organizations advocate.

Abdellah conceded that Brent's visit to the Pakistani camp broke the law, but in the end, he said, authorities caught a man who was only too willing to align himself with the radical beliefs of others without understanding the consequences for himself.

"Unfortunately," the lawyer said, "he was impressionable."

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