Terror trial of former Winnipeg man begins before a U.S. court

Written by Mike McIntyre Thursday, 05 April 2012
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WINNIPEG — He remains one of the world's most wanted fugitives — but a former Winnipeg man is about to take on a prominent role in a New York courtroom as a high-profile terrorism trial begins.


Ferid Ahmed Imam, 31, is a one-time University of Manitoba biochemistry student accused of extensive Taliban terror training, which authorities say included a plan to blow up the New York subway system using suicide bombers and attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.


Imam is the focus of a global manhunt, but one of the men he allegedly recruited to carry out the U.S. mission is set to face justice. Jury selection began this week for the case against Adis Medunjanin, 27, a would-be suicide bomber from New York who allegedly received detailed instructions and weaponry from Imam — also known as Yousef — while the pair were in Afghanistan.


Two other New York men Imam is accused of training already have pleaded guilty and are expected to be key witnesses at the trial against Medunjanin in what U.S. justice officials say was the most serious homegrown terrorist threat since 9/11.


Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay will appear in court under heavy security, which includes facing an "anonymous" jury whose identities will be concealed. The men struck deals with U.S. justice officials to testify against their childhood friend in exchange for a more lenient sentence.


The Winnipeg Free Press obtained court documents Tuesday outlining the case against Imam, Medunjanin, Zazi and Ahmedzay through an unsealed recent indictment. Eleven criminal charges are detailed, including conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism and use of a destructive device.


If convicted, all of the accused — including Imam — face between 30 years in prison to life.


Among the allegations, which cover the period from September 2008 to January 2010:


- Imam and several others provided "material support and training . . . including currency, lodging, training, expert advice and assistance, safe houses, communications equipment, explosives, personnel and transport to al-Qaida."


- Imam and several others received "military-type training . . . from and on behalf of al-Qaida."


- Imam and several others "did knowingly and intentionally use and carry one or more firearms during and in relation to one or more crimes of violence . . . one or more of which firearms was discharged and one or more of which firearms was a destructive device."


Federal prosecutors also detail numerous incidents of surveillance in which the accused boarded flights in New York, New Jersey and Pakistan as they allegedly received training during the time period.


The case first made international headlines in early 2010 when FBI agents swooped in to stop the subway bomb plot and got into a high-speed chase with Medunjanin after he fled his New York City apartment during a raid. Medunjanin is accused of driving his vehicle head-on into another at more than 160 km/h just moments after calling 911.


An audio tape recording of the dramatic conversation was released by a judge several weeks ago in advance of Medunjanin's upcoming trial.


"We love death . . . you love your life!" Medunjanin said in Arabic. Both he and the other driver somehow escaped with just minor injuries in the crash, which led to an additional attempted murder charge against Medunjanin. He later told an investigator he believed the crash was his final chance to "wage jihad" before he was arrested and locked up, likely for the rest of his life.


Zazi and Ahmedzay also were arrested — in less dangerous fashion — and later admitted in court they travelled to an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan with Medunjanin to learn how to make explosives out of household chemicals. They claim Imam was a central figure in that recruitment and training.


The trial judge recently agreed with a prosecution request to keep the identity of jurors secret through Medunjanin's trial for fear of reprisal. Jury selection began Monday with an estimated 500 prospective jurors being screened. Their names are being sealed in a vault and will not be disclosed to anyone involved in the case, including the judge. Medunjanin's lawyer's tried to fight the measure, claiming it would compromise their client's right to a fair trial and leave jurors with the presumption he must be guilty.


Police continue to search for another former Winnipeg man, Maiwand Yar, 28, who is charged with conspiring to participate in the activity of a terrorist group and participation in activity of a terrorist group. Yar is a close associate of Imam's but has not been linked to the New York subway plot.


RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Robinson told the Winnipeg Free Press last year both Imam and Yar allegedly headed to Pakistan for terrorist training in March 2007. The two received tourist visas for their entry to Pakistan and were photographed arriving at the Karachi International Airport. However, police say they found no records showing the men ever left the country through major travel points and officials believe they later travelled to Peshawar, a city in northwest Pakistan that is near the border with Afghanistan.


Robinson said an "extensive and thorough national security investigation" obtained the evidence required to lay the charges against the missing pair. The probe — known as Project Darken — involved Manitoba RCMP working with officials from Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Canada Border Services Agency and the FBI. Investigators collected over 40 witness statements during a four-year period as well as travel, school, banking and passport information. The investigation also involved looking at emails, phone records and letters, he said.


"Yar said that he and Imam were going to Pakistan to ally themselves with the Taliban and to attend the training camp in order to receive instruction in the use of firearms, scouting, guerrilla-warfare training and explosives," said Robinson. He said investigators got additional evidence from Ahmedzay, who identified Imam from a photo as a weapons instructor at a terrorist training camp in Peshawar.

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