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Originally published April 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 28, 2009 at 11:37 PM

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Seattle militant to testify in high-stakes terror trial

Felon James Ujaama is expected to be the star witness in a terrorism-related trial in U.S. District Court in New York. Ujaama will testify for the first time about a small group of militant Muslims in Seattle who went from commandeering a small mosque in the Central District to becoming entangled in an alleged international terrorism plot.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ten years ago, on a dusty ranch in southern Oregon, one-time Seattle hustler and Muslim convert James Ujaama came close to having his head cut off by a Swede named Oussama Kassir.

Kassir, according to court documents, had come to Bly, Ore., on the orders of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Islamic preacher and purported al-Qaida recruiter in London, to help Ujaama set up a Jihad training camp on U.S. soil.

Ujaama had promised Abu Hamza guns, recruits and terrain remarkably similar to Afghanistan. Kassir, a hardened Jihad fighter who claims he's killed dozens in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, was purportedly dispatched from London with another man and $12,000 in startup money.

What Kassir and his comrade found after their 7,000-mile trip were a couple of dilapidated trailers, a motley group of followers — including women and children — and a lot of big talk from Ujaama.

So Kassir, according to documents and eyewitness accounts, decided that he would kill Ujaama and bury him in Bly. Ujaama managed to keep his head.

But Kassir, a Lebanese-born Swedish citizen and engineer who once bragged that he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, may wish he'd carried out the threat: This week, the 43-year-old Ujaama — now a federal felon — is expected to be the star witness against Kassir in a terrorism-related trial in U.S. District Court in New York.

For the first time, Ujaama will testify about a small group of militant Muslims in Seattle that he led. The group went from commandeering a small mosque in the Central District to becoming entangled in an alleged international terrorism plot.

Kassir faces 12 felony counts, including offering material support to terrorists, conspiring to kill foreigners and providing information about chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Most of those stem from incidents at Bly, or for his work helping radical Islamic Web sites.

Abu Hamza, the cleric who lost both hands and one eye in an explosion in Afghanistan, was a top target of U.S. and British intelligence because of his open support of bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as his association with al-Qaida.

Ujaama is now the linchpin witness the U.S. and British governments hope to use to put Abu Hamza and his alleged henchmen — Kassir and Haroon Rashid Aswat — in prison for decades.

Charlie Mandigo, who oversaw the investigation while the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Seattle, said Ujaama "had always had big plans for himself."

"But I don't think this is quite what he had in mind," Mandigo said.

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Promising youth

Ujaama, born James Earnest Thompson, was an up-and-comer in Seattle's African-American community in the early 1990s. An Ingraham High School graduate, he was a motivational speaker, author and entrepreneur. He won acclaim for working with disadvantaged youth and was honored by lawmakers in Washington and Nevada.

When the investigation into his alleged links to Abu Hamza were first revealed in 2002, community leaders flocked to his defense. He and his younger brother, Mustafa, were "community activists, not terrorists," then-King County Executive Ron Sims told The Los Angeles Times.

Others dismissed the allegations as a prank or a scam that Ujaama was using to try to make a buck.

But details of what happened at Bly in early 1999 and the goings-on at a Central District mosque where Ujaama and others worshipped showed otherwise. Mandigo said that, regardless of motive, there is little doubt where Ujaama's allegiance lie.

"He was an idea man," Mandigo said. "Was he the guy who would plant a bomb? Probably not. But he'd be the guy who could motivate someone else to do it."

Or sell the idea of a Jihad training camp on U.S. soil.

Ujaama moved to London at his brother's urging and, according to court papers, fell in with Abu Hamza. Ujaama ran a virulent anti-American Web site called "Supporters of Shariah" for Abu Hamza, working out of the Finsbury Park mosque. That mosque had been visited by convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid as well as Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker of 9/11.

Ujaama, according to the documents, lived in London with his wife and son. He traveled several times to Afghanistan, delivering computers and money to the Taliban. At one point, in 2000, he escorted a young British Muslim named Feroz Abbassi from London to Afghanistan for Jihad training.

Abbassi would be captured by U.S. troops after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and identify Ujaama, providing the government with a crucial link between Ujaama and Abu Hamza.

Ujaama returned several times to Seattle, where he attended the Dar-us-Salaam mosque on Union Street.

The now-closed storefront mosque was dominated by a small group of militant Muslims, who attempted to create their own "Seattle Taliban" — armed patrols drove out neighborhood thugs and junkies, and enforced a version of the strict Islamic Shariah law on the neighbors. Women were required to cover their heads and Muslims who failed to pray were sometimes beaten, according to police reports and interviews.

Inside, the group hid firearms and preached the downfall of America and the West.

Initially, the property at Bly was going to be a potato farm and ranch where Muslims could raise and butcher meat according to Islamic traditions.

But Ujaama visited the site in late 1999 and reported to Abu Hamza that the terrain was similar to Afghanistan.

In a fax sent from Seattle to London — and intercepted by British intelligence agents — Ujaama pitched the idea of a camp to train U.S. and British Muslims as Taliban fighters. Abu Hamza responded by sending Kassir and Aswat, along with $12,000 in startup money and CDs containing instructions on how to build bombs and make chemical weapons.

The men spent several weeks at Bly and then returned to Seattle, where they stayed for several more weeks at the Dar-us-Salaam mosque.

Ujaama was arrested and later indicted in 2002. He adamantly denied any involvement in terrorism and claimed he was being targeted for his outspoken opposition to U.S. policies. He pleaded guilty the following year to providing aid in the form of computers, cash and fighters to the illegal Taliban government.

He was given a two-year prison sentence and agreed to testify against Abu Hamza and the others involved in Bly.

But it was apparent that Ujaama's heart wasn't in it. At his sentencing the following year, he railed against U.S. policies in the Middle East and vowed to change the laws or relinquish his citizenship.

In 2006, Ujaama fled the U.S. in violation of his plea agreement. He was arrested outside a mosque in Belize. According to sources, he was trying to get to Venezuela or Argentina, where he hoped to avoid being sent back to the U.S. He was sent back to prison.

When he got out, he pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related charges, including a conspiracy count related to Bly.

He faces up to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced. The sentencing will not happen until after he has lived up to his promise to testify.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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