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Phoenix man guilty of aiding terrorists

Navy sailor's quiet life took a sinister turn

Sean Holstege
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 6, 2008 12:00 AM

Those who met Hassan Abu-Jihaad describe him as mild-mannered, polite and unobtrusive; a California native who converted to Islam while living in Phoenix in 1997.

But, on Wednesday, Abu-Jihaad became something more sinister: the face of treason and homegrown Islamic terrorism - and a reminder that the Internet can inflame radical violence halfway around the world.

A federal jury in Connecticut took less than 24 hours to convict the former U.S. Navy sailor on charges he slipped classified details of American fleet movements to a Web site accused of assisting the terrorist group al-Qaida.

In May, Abu-Jihaad, 32, could be sentenced for up to 25 years in prison for providing material support to terrorists and disclosing classified national-defense information.

His attorney, Dan LaBelle, told the Associated Press that an appeal is likely. LaBelle had argued in court that there was no direct proof that his client, formerly known as Paul R. Hall, sent e-mails with details of ship movements and that the information was publicly available.

Federal officials said the man's intentions were clear.

"Mr. Abu-Jihaad jeopardized the lives of countless American servicemen and -women, and, as a member of the U.S. Navy, his conduct was shameful and deceitful," Kathryn A. Feeney, an agent with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, told the AP.

Life after conversion

Little is known about Abu-Jihaad before his religious conversion in Phoenix, and there were no signs he would become a terrorist.

He changed his name in 1997, telling the court only that he had converted to Islam and his religion demanded he take a Muslim name. He chose a surname that means "father of holy war." Eight months later, he enlisted in the Navy.

In 2000, he married Takia Haji, who at age 18 was six years his junior. Seven months later, they had their first daughter and a year later their second. Takia remained unemployed while Abu-Jihaad went to sea, court records show.

In Phoenix, Abu-Jihaad was seen only sporadically for prayers at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. Scott Sutton, a west Phoenix neighbor in 2001, remembered Abu-Jihaad as somebody who kept to himself in a tidy house and drove a minivan. When that van backed into Sutton's girlfriend's van, the two exchanged apologies and left without a fuss.

Abu-Jihaad was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2002 with medals and a reputation for better-than-average service.

He returned to United Parcel Service, where he had worked in 1995. UPS employees later told reporters that Abu-Jihaad was a good co-worker.

At some point, he and his wife began having troubles. He filed for divorce in 2005 and in court records listed his monthly income at $3,068 and his expenses at $3,818.

In 2006, the court granted Abu-Jihaad custody of the couple's two young children. He was the sole breadwinner.

Breeding terrorism

A more sinister portrait emerges from the stacks of evidence presented to the federal court in Connecticut, where the trial took place because an Internet service provider involved in the case was based there.

Secret FBI wiretaps recorded Abu-Jihaad talking of attacking a military recruiting base in Phoenix and a naval station in San Diego with a younger man, Derrick Shareef. In some of the transcripts, the two are recorded discussing the purchase of two automatic assault rifles for $1,300. They talk about calling their group the American Islamic Movement or the American Muslim Movement Organization.

Abu-Jihaad befriended Shareef, a drifter, at the Phoenix mosque, before inviting him to share his apartment. Abu-Jihaad taught Shareef radical Islamic ideology and trained him in weapons, court records show. They watched jihadist propaganda films of battle-scarred places such as Chechnya, which showed actual execution footage of Russian soldiers. Abu-Jihaad bought the materials from London-based Azzam Publications.

It was Azzam's Web site - believed by prosecutors to be a conduit of money and equipment to al-Qaida fighters, including ones who massacred students at a Russian school - that landed Abu-Jihaad in trouble. Authorities raided the London apartment of the Webmaster and found a floppy disk with an e-mail from Abu-Jihaad.

The Phoenix man had sent it while aboard the destroyer USS Benfold while in the Persian Gulf in 2001. It showed the movements of the battle group through the precarious Straits of Hormuz and discussed its vulnerabilities. Abu-Jihaad advised that the e-mail be destroyed.

In other e-mails he told Azzam that he endorsed the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.

Back in Phoenix in 2004, Abu-Jihaad learned in a press account of the London raid that he was being investigated. It didn't identify him, but he started crying, Shareef later said. Afterward Abu-Jihaad started destroying his videos.

In recorded conversations, he talked of being watched. He used code words, prosecutors said, talking of "hot meals" and "cold meals" to refer to fresh and old intelligence that could be used in attacks, and calling Osama bin Laden "Under the Black Leaves."Abu-Jihaad and Shareef had a falling out. Abu-Jihaad is recorded telling an FBI informant that Shareef was stupid, a rookie and a loudmouth. He is recorded saying, "Snitches don't live long in the streets or jail."

Shareef later told the FBI that Abu-Jihaad had lost his nerve. Shareef was arrested in December 2006 trying to buy hand grenades that he planned to blow up at CherryVale Mall in Rockford, Ill.He pleaded guilty to the plot.

Anger at the Navy

Deedra Abboud, with the American Muslim Society, came to Abu-Jihaad's defense when reports surfaced that he was under suspicion. Abboud said Tuesday that he had always come across as an "average guy, who was overwhelmed by the charges." She said he never said or did anything anti-American, although he objected to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Abu-Jihaad did express frustrations with the Navy over finances in 2006 on an FBI wire, when he explained why he left the service. "My last captain was a coward," he said, describing how the captain scrubbed a Navy SEALS operation against smugglers. "He was afraid of two things: losing people and running his ship aground. What a coward."

Abu-Jihaad said he was more qualified than his captain, before venting about the Navy's lack of financial support for him.

"I don't see nobody giving me no SGLI (life insurance). I don't see nobody giving me no GI Bill," Abu-Jihaad complained. "I mean, no money for no college . . . no SGLI money for my loved ones."

Nobody really knows what made Abu-Jihaad turn against his country or whether he was capable of carrying out a real attack or just had burning hatreds and strong sympathies.

"What traditionally happens in our community is we have a lot of complainers, outrage against the injustices of the world and a lot of victim mentality," Abboud said. "Sometimes, you get somebody who gets passionate and is a little delusional to begin with."

At the mosque, board member Soliman Saadeldin said fire-and-brimstone political sermons are kept out of the services. The FBI asked him last year about Abu-Jihaad and he said he recognized the man and told investigators that he would contact agents if anyone was suspicious.

But the conflicts throughout the Muslim world are part of a cultural civil war between modernists and fundamentalists, and Phoenix modernist, M. Zuhdi Jasser, blamed the radicalization of men like Abu-Jihaad on some Valley mosques. Not one condemned the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, and he said he stopped going to one local mosque because of the torrent of anti-Western, anti-Semitic political rhetoric there.

"They take somebody like Paul Hall and turn him into a jihadist. People become the tools for their political ends," said Jasser, who chairs the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. "He is definitely a homegrown terrorist."

"If spending money you don't have is the height of stupidity, borrowing money to give it away is the height of insanity." -- anon
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