Law enforcement uncertain what arrest will mean in war on terror

West-side man accused of ties to Pakistani group

August 06, 2005|By Matthew Dolan and Siobhan Gorman | Matthew Dolan and Siobhan Gorman,SUN STAFF

The federal charges lodged this week against Mahmud F. Brent read like a thriller, filled with tales of a clandestine FBI sting operation in a Maryland hotel room, terrorism training camps in the mountains of Pakistan and shadowy connections to al-Qaida.

But some terrorism experts and knowledgeable investigators say the case remains murky, leaving law enforcement officials unable to assess the significance of the arrest.

According to court papers, Brent, a 30-year-old West Baltimore man who drove a cab in Washington, conspired to help the armed wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based religious organization labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

Brent, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in Orange, N.J., outside Newark on Thursday afternoon and brought to New York. About the same time, FBI agents raided his house on Gwynn Oak Avenue.

Brent, also known as Mahmud Al Mutazzim, is alleged to have attended a terrorist camp in Pakistan and taken martial-arts training in trying to assist Lashkar-e-Taiba, which roughly translates to "Army of the Righteous."

But one federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the case said, "We may not [ever] know the impact" of Brent's arrest.

Federal prosecutors in New York City said yesterday that Brent will remain in custody at least until his next court appearance, scheduled for early next month. His attorney did not return several phone calls yesterday.

The case reflects the FBI's revamped counter-terrorism program that aims to disrupt attacks before they occur by scooping up suspects.

`Remove the actor'

Brent is not thought to be a central planner for some sort of terrorist attack, the federal law enforcement official said. But the official said Brent's arrest was still important: "We remove the actor from the game plan."

Some who have looked at terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 criticized the Bush administration for casting too wide a net.

Defense attorney Martin R. Stolar represents Boca Raton, Fla., doctor Rafiq Sabir, who was arrested with Tarik Shah -- the man who led federal agents to Brent, according to court documents -- this year on terrorism charges.

"My client basically has nothing to do with nothing," Stolar said. "He's not a member of a terrorist organization. He thinks al-Qaida is a myth pushed by the CIA."

Federal authorities allege that Brent received martial-arts training in upstate New York from Shah, a Bronx jazz musician who is under indictment with Sabir in the Southern District of New York.

Shah and Sabir are friends from their days in the Nation of Islam 30 years ago in Harlem, according to Stolar. An attorney for Shah did not return phone calls yesterday.

Cases like Sabir's trouble some researchers who have called attention to the low conviction rate stemming from terrorism investigations.

"Instead of going around arresting everyone and getting few substantial sentences, they should be more selective," said David Burnham, who collects and analyzes law enforcement data for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

A 2003 report he compiled found that there were more than 6,400 terrorism-related prosecutions brought since Sept. 11, 2001, but only five defendants received sentences of 20 years or more in prison.

Preventing terrorism

Harvey Eisenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, said those numbers don't represent the whole picture.

Eisenberg, the coordinator of the state's anti-terrorism advisory council, confirmed that there have been no terrorism prosecutions in Maryland since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"But that doesn't say one thing or another. The mandate from the president and attorney general is to prevent terrorism, and that's what we're doing," he said.

Other types of prosecution, including immigration or credit card fraud charges, have been used against those suspected of having ties to terrorism organizations, according to Eisenberg. He declined to give examples.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is both a legitimate, legal missionary group as well as an Islamic extremist group. The issue for investigators, according to one senior United States counter-terrorism official, is figuring out where Brent allegedly fits into the organization.

This is the same issue intelligence officials have had with the so-called "Virginia jihad network," the counter-terrorism official said.

The "Virginia jihad network" was a group of men who the government said trained for jihad by playing paintball games in northern Virginia. It was also associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to court papers, and federal officials have tied Brent to one of its members, who is now serving a 65-year prison term.

Though some experts have expressed skepticism about how one makes the leap from paintball to holy war, Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said: "One should have no doubt that these people mean business. It's a serious group."

Lashkar-e-Taiba has had a presence in the United States for at least a decade, said Gunaratna, who called it "the closest Pakistani terrorist group to al-Qaida."

At least one of the July 7 bombers in London is believed to have spent time at the group's complex in Pakistan. And the now-notorious "shoe bomber," Richard Reid of Britain, received support from Lashkar-e-Taiba's outpost in France.

Worrisome trend

Gunaratna said experts and government officials worry about a trend toward "terrorist support cells ... mutating and transforming into terrorism execution cells."

He said the threat is serious and the United States has focused too narrowly on al-Qaida and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

"The threats posed by Asian groups must not be underestimated," Gunaratna said.

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