Summer trial sought for terrorism suspect
RALEIGH — A North Carolina man charged with seeking to join an al-Qaida-linked militant group should face trial this summer, even though prosecutors said they needed extra time to provide the man's attorneys with intelligence data, a federal judge said Friday.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle told prosecutors their proposed September trial date was too long for Basit Sheikh, 29, of Cary, N.C., to wait. He was arrested in November at Raleigh's airport at the start of what prosecutors say was a trek to fight in Syria's civil war, a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people over 2 1/2 years.
"It's my opinion that a matter of sensitive national security needs to go to the front of the line, not the back of the line, for the court's attention," Boyle said. He said Sheikh should go on trial in July but gave attorneys on both sides flexibility in working out the best date.
Sheikh is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group for attempting to join Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government declared a terrorist organization.
The FBI says Sheikh wrote messages online expressing a desire to fight with the group, one of the primary rebel forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops. Boyle last week rejected a bid by defense lawyers to release Sheikh on bail after deciding he was both a flight risk and danger to the community.
The FBI has been on the lookout for Americans expressing interest in joining the Syrian war, where they could become radicalized by al-Qaida-linked militant groups and return to the U.S. as battle-hardened security risks. Sheikh's case was at least the third in the past year in which the U.S. government charged U.S. residents with alleged efforts to join Jabhat al-Nusra, also called the Nusra Front.
Federal prosecutors wanted more time before trying Sheikh, arguing the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies needed time to comb through data they might have while protecting spying sources and methods. Prosecutors are required to find and give defense lawyers any information that might help prove a defendant is innocent.
"Once the information is located, which is a hurdle in and of itself, we need to see that it can be declassified," prosecutor Jason Kellhofer said.
Sheikh spent three weeks in Turkey in 2012 in a failed attempt to reach the fight in Syria, Kellhofer said.
Sheikh was attracted last spring to an FBI-run Facebook page that posed as a forum for militant Muslim views.
Sheikh was drawn into the idea of fighting in Syria through his written, online discussions with an FBI agent or confidential informant who was described as a female nurse in Syria, his attorneys said. Sheikh's communications with the FBI operative became personal and even romantic before Sheikh was introduced to another FBI contact described as able to lead the Pakistan-born man to al-Qaida-linked fighters.
Information about how those two FBI representatives went about their work and what they said to Sheikh are key to his defense, attorney Joseph Gilbert said.
"That is the crux of what we really want to see," said Gilbert, a federal public defender.
Sheikh has no criminal record, but during a November hearing his mother testified that the man who turns 30 next month lived with his parents, likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, and spent all of his time on the Internet.
"Chronologically he's 30, but he's much younger than that," Gilbert said.