Guilty Plea in Terror Case

Two members of an Islamic jihadist group formed in a California prison pleaded guilty Friday to terror charges that they plotted attacks on military bases, synagogues and Israeli government facilities. The group, Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), preached violence against "infidels," researched possible military and Jewish targets in the Los Angeles area, and allegedly bought firearms and launched a series of gas station robberies to fund the enterprise. Federal prosecutors charged four men in 2005 with a seven-count federal terror, weapons and robbery indictment.

The two men who accepted plea deals in federal court in Santa Ana, Calif., were alleged JIS founder Kevin James and Levar Washington, whom James recruited when the pair were cellmates at California's New Folsom Prison. Both pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to levy war against the United States through terrorism. Washington also admitted to a weapons charge. James faces up to 20 years in federal prison; Washington could get 25. Prosecutors expect a third man, Gregory Patterson, to accept a plea deal next week. The fourth alleged conspirator, Hammad Samana, currently undergoing psychiatric treatment, was ruled unfit to stand trial, federal prosecutors say.

Law enforcement agents launched the investigation in 2005, after JIS documents turned up during an investigation of a gas station robbery in Torrance, Calif. According to the plea deal, James, a prisoner at a state prison in Sacramento, formed JIS in 1997 with the aim of an Islamic caliphate in the United States, recruiting fellow inmates to join a group whose plan was to "sit back, plan and attack!!!" The plot didn't really get rolling until 2004, when James's former cellmate Washington was paroled to Los Angeles and began recruiting at a local mosque, according to the plea deal. Washington concocted a scheme to finance the terror activities by robbing gas stations (they allegedly hit about a dozen). Meanwhile Samana allegedly researched possible targets, including National Guard facilities, the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, the Israeli consulate and something called the "campsite of Zion." According to a "Blueprint 2005" document written by James, the men planned to buy pistols with silencers and "bombs that can be activated from a distance."

The successful California case marked a sharp improvement in the fortune for the feds' track record in recent anti-terror prosecution. A federal jury in Miami Thursday failed to convict any of the seven defendants of the Liberty City Seven, a group of indigent men who allegedly plotted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Jurors acquitted one man outright and the judge declared a mistrial in the six other men's trials. The case drew charges of entrapment because it was based on information provided by an FBI informant posing as an Al Qaeda emissary. Federal prosecutors vowed to retry the six remaining defendants; the trial will probably begin next year.

Thomas P. O'Brien is the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, whose office prosecuted the case. In an interview with NEWSWEEK'S Andrew Murr, O'Brien said the JIS group might have been close to readiness for attacks. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How close do prosecutors believe the JIS cell was to committing terror attacks when they were arrested?
Thomas P. O'Brien:
We believe based on all the evidence gathered they were within several months of conducting an operation. The reason is that some of the documents found [raised the possibility], and they had acquired weapons and had test fired them. They had a 12-gauge shotgun [and had ordered a rifle]. They were out conducting a string of about a dozen armed robberies in order to gather money to fund the terrorist attacks. They had conducted surveillance and come up with a list of jihad-type targets around Los Angeles.

The original plan was to wait for James to be paroled in approximately January 2006. Mr. Washington, however, it looked like he wanted to accelerate the plan. There was a discussion of Jewish holidays and September 11 that year. We arrested them in July 2005, so perhaps [they might have attacked] within a few months. It was well beyond the sitting back and discussing hypothetically, "Wouldn't it be nice to attack the United States military?" They were in the advance stages of planning and actually executing of their plan.

They talked about gathering bomb materials. Was there any evidence that had happened?
It looks like they had not gotten to that point. They talked about gathering materials, and they were supposed to be recruiting people, including one who had an explosives background or trained in explosives. The idea, according to the plea agreement, [was] they wanted to develop expertise in remote control bomb making.

The cell appears to have been remarkably indiscreet about committing plans to paper. They even left the text of a press release Mr. James had written for use once they committed a successful attack. And one of the ringleaders, James, was in prison the whole time. Why didn't their plans attract attention earlier?
One of the issues is that there's always a concern about civil rights and the freedom and practice of religion even in the state prison system. The FBI is working much closer with California Department of Corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons to examine any potential connection between the practice of religion, which is authorized under the First Amendment and people who develop as a bizarre, radical offshoots, as terrorists have done and certainly as Mr. James has done. … Our intent is to try to identify and disrupt any type of radicalization similar to JIS.

The case started when local police arrested two of the men for armed robbery?
Torrance Police arrested these guys on the armed robbery, and they executed the search warrant and found this jihad type material. This investigation worked because street cops recognized the value of that material. We were up within hours with a command post, and we had at least 25 agencies and over 500 investigators, analysts and prosecutors at the local, state and military levels. We seized and analyzed thousands of documents. We realized quickly that they were planning on attacking U.S. military and Jewish sites, perhaps in the extreme near future. I think that we did this one right.

This stands in marked contrast to this week's acquittal and mistrials in Florida in the Liberty City case. Terrorism investigators have come under criticism for launching weak cases or making arrests so early in alleged plots that the evidence isn't there yet. What's different about the cases?
I don't want to comment on other investigations that are going on through the country, because they involved other agencies and other U.S. Attorneys offices. And the cases are factually different. This one, why I believe it was so successful is because we investigated it so fully. … In these types of cases, there's always a struggle between doing whatever it takes to ensure the safety of citizens, which is the No. 1 priority, and also being able to step back at the same time and look toward the prosecution. You can't wait for the fuse to be lit and then have the Joint Terrorism Task Force rush in and stamp it out. You've got to consider the safety of the citizens when you are thwarting one of these attacks. If the criticism is that we've thwarted them too early to get a prosecution, my response is, "Guess what? At least we thwarted them." I mean that.