CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It began six years ago as a routine undercover investigation into suspiciously large cash purchases of cigarettes at a Statesville, N.C., store.
But from those unremarkable beginnings, federal investigators and prosecutors in Charlotte are fashioning a legal case that could provide the nation's law enforcement officials with the blueprint for smashing cells of suspected terrorist supporters operating on American soil.
Federal prosecutors are targeting what they believe to be a Charlotte, N.C.-based group of extremists who may have used connections from Canada to the Middle East to funnel money and military-style equipment to Hezbollah, the Lebanese organization labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, the hunt for such groups has taken on added urgency.
The future prosecution of accused terrorist supporters in America will likely follow the lead federal prosecutors are taking in Charlotte as they prepare to put on trial in April the eight men and one woman accused of being members and associates of Charlotte's Hezbollah cell.
It is expected to be the first time alleged supporters of an overseas terrorist group are put on trial in America under a 1996 federal law banning material support to foreign terrorist groups. And it's the first time Canada's intelligence agency has turned over evidence for U.S. prosecutors to use in court.
Court papers in the case read like a Tom Clancy novel, complete with classified documents, secret courts, wiretapping spy agencies, a witness who will testify only in disguise and confidential informants identified only by letters and numbers.
Hezbollah has denied any ties to the Charlotte suspects, who have not been accused of committing any acts of terrorism or violence.
The nine defendants have entered not-guilty pleas.
Defense lawyers say it shouldn't be illegal to provide aid to Hezbollah, which they describe as an Islamic political and religious group. They also believe prosecutors are misusing national security laws to pull a veil of secrecy around what should be a routine cigarette-smuggling case.
"My client loves America - the best day in his life was when he became a U.S. citizen, fulfilling his dream," said Chris Fialko, the attorney for defendant Said Mohamad Harb.
"He is counting on the United States' justice system to give him a fair trial."
A most-wanted list of 22 international terrorists, announced Wednesday by President Bush, includes at least one man affiliated with Hezbollah. Imad Mughniyeh, wanted for the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, is described as the one-time Hezbollah security chief.
Testimony in the trial of suspects in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa indicated that some members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network had trained with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the use of explosives.
The Charlotte case has reached the highest levels of the U.S. criminal justice system, with prosecutors saying in court and legal papers that the case involves grave national security issues.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked that intelligence documents in the case be kept secret.
The attorney general submitted to U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen for his private review an affidavit - "classified SECRET" - from the FBI's counterterrorism division.
"It would damage the security interests of the United States to further reveal the sources and methods this nation is using to conduct its counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations," Ashcroft warned.
U.S. Attorney Bob Conrad and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Bell, who is prosecuting the suspected Hezbollah cell members, would not talk about the case.
`We will combat fear'
But after September's terrorist attacks, federal prosecutors and investigators in Charlotte have made it clear that targeting possible terrorists and their supporters is a top priority.
"Terrorism succeeds when citizens lose their sense of security," Conrad said. "We will combat fear with aggressive law enforcement action. The protective wall against terrorism will be built brick by brick. We intend to strictly enforce immigration, identity theft, money laundering and other federal laws."
Chris Swecker, who heads the FBI in North Carolina, would not speculate about why the suspected Hezbollah cell members selected Charlotte to settle in. But he said, "We're concerned Charlotte may not be unique. And what happened here may be going on in other cities across the country."
The case sparked headlines across the country last year when federal authorities charged 18 people, mostly from Lebanon, in a wide-ranging investigation into cigarette smuggling, money laundering and immigration violations.