Miami imam accused of aiding Taliban declares innocence at federal trial

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

An elderly Miami imam accused of contributing money to the Pakistani Taliban declared his innocence from the witness stand in federal court Tuesday, saying he despises the U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

Hafiz Khan, testifying during his trial in his native Pashto language through an interpreter, said the money he sent from Miami to Pakistan was meant for his family and a religious school known as a madrassa that he founded in the Swat Valley region decades ago.

Khan, 77, the frail former leader of the Flagler Mosque in Miami, tried to portray himself as a naturalized U.S. citizen who embraced his new country — contrary to the fiery anti-American and anti-Pakistan government figure captured on secret FBI recordings of his phone conversations before his arrest in 2011.

“We are innocent [of] these accusations,” Khan testified, speaking for himself and other family members charged in the material-support terrorism case.

Asked by one of his defense attorneys whether his madrassa for boys and girls catered to Taliban fighters, Khan said: “We have no connection to them whatsoever. We hate them.”

Later, Khan testified he was “totally against” the Taliban’s use of violence, such as beheadings and the destruction of property to impose extreme Islamic, or Sharia, law on people.

Khan also sought to clarify that his anti-Pakistan rhetoric was provoked by the government’s shutting down of his madrassa for safety concerns during a violent conflict with the Taliban in 2009.

In one FBI-recorded phone conversation, Khan was quoted saying: “They are such big motherf---ers for shutting down the education for the little kids.”

On the witness stand, he testified that if the United States took over Pakistan, “it would be good, because there would be law.”

Khan, who moved with his family to the United States in 1994, has been on trial since early January on four charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

The high-profile case has presented problems for prosecutors, who dropped charges against one of Khan’s sons for lack of evidence. U.S. District Judge Robert Scola also dismissed charges against another son, a Muslim cleric from Broward, during trial.

Prosecutors are expected to cross-examine Khan Wednesday.

His testimony came exactly one week after his defense team tried to take direct testimony from 11 witnesses in an Islamabad hotel, by transmitting the examination to the Miami courtroom through an Internet connection that mysteriously went silent in Pakistan. The signal was cut off, either because of a technical glitch or the Pakistan government’s intervention, during the testimony of a suspected Taliban soldier.

A suspected Taliban fighter named Noor Mohammed, who described himself as a street vendor with five children, had testified, “I never fought for the Taliban,” before the feed went dead.

He followed a Pakistani shopkeeper, Ali Rehman, a co-defendant in the Miami indictment against Khan. Rehman testified that he and Hafiz Khan did not supply thousands of dollars to the Taliban to aid its terrorist mission against U.S. interests overseas — that the money instead went to Khan’s relatives living in the Swat Valley.

The FBI opened the investigation after U.S. banks reported suspicious financial transactions between Khan’s accounts in the United States and Pakistan starting in spring 2008. With that evidence, authorities obtained a warrant to wiretap Khan’s phone conversations with relatives and associates here and in Pakistan. A confidential government informant was also deployed.

According to an indictment, Khan and to a lesser extent other Khan family members sent roughly $50,000 to the Taliban between 2008 and 2010.

The indictment said the family’s money helped back the Taliban’s purchase of guns and other resources for assaults on the Pakistan government and U.S. interests, including bombing attacks killing dozens of people in the Swat Valley and the attempted bombing in New York City’s Times Square.

The indictment does not tie Khan-family money to any specific acts of terrorism. But in recorded phone conversations, Khan praised the 2010 Times Square bombing plot as well as al Qaeda — and called for a global jihad.

Khan supported not only attacks on Pakistani officials and soldiers, but also civilians who backed the Pakistan government, according to the recordings.

In one recorded conversation, Khan complained: “Doesn’t one of them have the guts to do a suicide attack so they can teach them a lesson?”

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