Boise terror case tests Patriot Act's reach
A Saudi doctoral candidate helped create and support Islamic websites. Was it innocent help or 'expert' support of terror?
Ten years ago, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a young Saudi from a respected Arab family, came to the University of Idaho to expand his knowledge of digital technology.
By all accounts, Mr. Hussayen seemed to enjoy his time in the American West. He and his wife, living in modest campus housing, raised two young children. And, in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, he organized community discussions to show local residents that Islam was nothing to be feared.
Yet in 2003, following an investigation stretching to several states, the federal government alleged that the expertise the doctoral candidate had acquired in computer science had been used as a tool to aid international terrorists.
Federal prosecutors say Hussayen established websites that were used by militant Islamic extremists, such as supporters of the Palestinian group Hamas, to plot violent terrorist acts. He also stands accused of setting up bank accounts that helped funnel funds to an Islamic group in Michigan with alleged terrorist connections.
The charges against him - at the heart of a trial that began in Boise last week - represent a major test of the reach and effectiveness of federal efforts to combat terrorism at home, including the controversial USA Patriot Act. And for Muslims at colleges and elsewhere across the country, the case is raising concerns about whether their civil liberties are being adequately protected in an era of stepped-up surveillance.
Indeed, while Hussayen's arrest has been cited as evidence that increased police power is working to make the country safer, others insist that Hussayen's treatment is a travesty of justice.
"This is a big, important trial, and the fate of Hussayen serves as a microcosm of what could happen across the country," says famed defense attorney Gerry Spence. "Boise has once again become a battle ground for human rights."
Mr. Spence, known for wearing a fringed buckskin jacket, won an acquittal in Boise in 1993 for former separatist Randy Weaver, who faced federal weapons and murder charges after family members were killed in a shootout with government agents at Ruby Ridge.
Today, Spence claims parallels exist between the Hussayen and Weaver cases: The government, he says, "has demonized the defendant by playing on the fears of the public so that it will accept greater government intrusion on civil liberties."
But supporters of strong legal efforts in the war on terror say the trial holds another kind of symbolism.
"This is a demonstration of the ability of our civil justice system to function in a time of war," says former federal prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig, now with the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Hussayen has pleaded not guilty.
He was initially charged with visa fraud, because authorities say he failed to disclose on a 2002 student visa application connections with the Islamic Assembly of North America, a group the US government claims has terrorist ties.
This year, an additional indictment accused him of providing material support for terrorism, based on a Patriot Act provision that such illegal support can include "expert advice" as well as acts such as training or financing.
At issue is whether his involvement in setting up or running various Islamic websites constituted such assistance.
"With his expertise and expert advice, he created for them the vehicle for the recruitment and funding of terrorism," federal attorney Kim Lindquist said as the trial opened. "The Internet is an integral part of logistical support for extreme jihad, terrorism, around the world."
Those who know Hussayen, however, say he would not knowingly support terrorism. "The case which the Justice Department is making against Sami gets fishier the more one looks into it," says Rand Lewis, director of the University of Idaho's Martin Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. "The government has opened a Pandora's box."
After spending 29 years in the US Army, with part of that time in a counterterrorism unit, Lewis says he's certainly not opposed to ferreting out terrorists. But Hussayen, whom he befriended when the two worked together in the campus computer department, appears to have been interested in fostering discussion and helping to direct money toward causes he thought were humanitarian in nature.
"The administration is trying to make Sami a poster child for its war on terror," Dr. Lewis says, adding that it caused angst and anger to ripple throughout the Muslim community in Idaho and beyond. Even Internet webmasters might now look at this case and worry that content placed by others on a site they create could prompt charges of aiding terror.
Already, Hussayen has spent a year in jail on charges that could send him to prison for decades. His family weeks ago was expelled to Saudi Arabia.
"Regardless of which way the outcome goes, the feds win and Sami loses," Lewis adds. "Even if he is acquitted, he faces immediate deportation while the government can claim it's doing what it could to keep the country safe."