John Louis Esposito for the Defense (of an Alleged Would-be Terrorist)

Professor John Louis Esposito of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is one of the most outspoken and prolific defenders of radical Islamist ideology in Western academia.  But in addition to his tenured employment in Middle East Studies, Esposito has found a second calling -- as a court expert in the trials of accused Muslim radicals.  

According to the Washington-based website Politico, Esposito has been tapped as a defense witness in the case of Khalid Ali Aldawsari, a twenty-one-year-old Saudi Arabian subject arrested in February 2011 in Lubbock, Texas. 

Aldawsari is charged with one count of attempting to fabricate a weapon of mass destruction -- i.e., a bomb.  If he is found guilty, he may be sentenced to life imprisonment.  A mental competency hearing, according to Politico, is scheduled to begin in the third week of February, with a trial set for April 30.

In a statement by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding his detention, reported soon after he was arrested, Aldawsari's conspiratorial efforts were detailed as they appeared in a federal criminal complaint and accompanying affidavit.  The DOJ stated that Aldawsari entered the U.S. legally and was enrolled at South Plains College near Lubbock.  Aldawsari had "purchase[d] chemicals and equipment necessary to make an improvised explosive device (IED)" and had "research[ed] potential U.S. targets."  Aldawsari expressed his commitment to armed jihad and to "martyrdom" in a blog, titled "From Far Away," and a personal journal.

The Justice Department outlined Aldawsari's attempts to make trinitrophenol (TNP), or picric acid, a well-known component in explosives.  He failed to obtain concentrated phenol, a toxic chemical that may be employed for legal purposes but also may be used in producing picric acid.  A chemical vendor completed his order for the item and sent it to a freight shipping company, which Aldawsari had asked to hold the chemical for him.  The freight shipper reported the transaction to federal authorities, and the hazardous commodity was returned to the seller.  Aldawsari told the freight company he was affiliated with a university and needed the concentrated phenol for "off-campus, personal research."  But Aldawsari then canceled the order. 

Aldawsari was, however, successful in buying concentrated nitric and sulfuric acid, which are combined with concentrated phenol to produce picric acid.  As revealed in legally authorized electronic surveillance disclosed by DOJ, Aldawsari researched construction of an IED online, and sent himself e-mails on the production of concentrated phenol and of picric acid, labeling the latter a "military explosive."  

In other e-mails, Aldawsari wrote information to himself on the chemical requirements for production of nitro urea, a "blowing agent" created by adding urea nitrate to concentrated sulfuric acid.  Urea is a chemical found in the urine of animals and may be produced artificially; it is a source of nitrogen included in fertilizers.  Aldawsari also used e-mails to himself to archive instructions on conversion of cell phones to become remote detonators, and attachment of explosives to vehicles "using items available in every home."  Aldawsari purchased a gas mask, a hazardous materials protective suit, a soldering iron kit, glass chemical apparatuses, clocks, a battery tester, wiring, and a stun gun.

When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents searched Aldawsari's apartment in February 2011, they found the concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids, chemistry equipment, wiring and the hazardous material suit, and clocks.  But they also retrieved a "diary or journal" in which Aldawsari averred that he had been planning a terrorist attack for years.  The notebook entries showed that he had sought and received an American college scholarship because it would assist his travel to the U.S. and provide him with financial means "I need for Jihad."  The commentary by Aldawsari continued, "And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad." 

Aldawsari's notes included "a synopsis of important steps" for completion of his homicidal mission: obtaining a forged U.S. birth certificate, renting a car, using different driver's licenses each time he rented a car, and placing bombs in vehicles and leaving them in different locations during rush hours.

But the Saudi suspect was not, it seems, hungry for martyrdom: he included the need to leave the city chosen for his spree of violence "for a safe place."

Targets for his extremist violence ranged from names and addresses of three U.S. military veterans who had been assigned to the prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq to a list headed "NICE TARGETS 01," with the names of twelve reservoir dams in Colorado and California.  A second message titled "NICE TARGETS" specified hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants as objects of attack.  On February 6, 2011, as alleged by the federal affidavit, Aldawsari e-mailed himself the Dallas address of former president George W. Bush, headed "Tyrant's House."  Aldawsari additionally expressed interest in concealing explosives in infant dolls and targeting a nightclub using a backpack bomb.

Aldawsari apparently acted alone in his preparations for massacre.  The New York Times reported when he was apprehended that he intended to place car bombs in New York.  The Times further said that Aldawsari's first place of study in the U.S. was Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he learned English.  But the scholarship for which he expressed gratitude as enabling jihad came from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.  In the Times, Aldawsari was portrayed by other Saudi students in the area as "extremely antisocial."  He lived with three roommates but "kept his door locked and seldom talked with them," and he "spent most of his time "working out in a student gym or listening to Arabic television broadcasts on his laptop in his room, his former roommates said."

While at Vanderbilt, in diary jottings that appeared benevolent, Aldawsari expressed his desire to work in epidemiology, preventing disease through government programs, or to find a job with Google.  But in 2009, after a summer visit to the Saudi kingdom, his aspirations changed, and he moved to Lubbock to study chemical engineering.  In spring 2010, he commenced posting jihadist messages and cut himself off from his roommates.   

As a criminal defendant in the U.S., Aldawsari must be considered innocent until proven guilty.  Nevertheless, the accumulation of credible evidence by the federal authorities indicates strongly that Aldawsari presented a serious terrorist threat to the public.  

Why, we may ask, should Esposito involve himself on behalf of such an individual?  According to the defense witness roster accessible via Politico, Esposito will be called to testify as:

An expert in Islamic and Arabic culture, [who] will analyze the writings found on the blog 'From Far Away,' which the Government attributes to Mr. Aldawsari, writings allegedly found in Mr. Aldawsari's notebooks, and certain videos allegedly found on Mr. Aldawsari's computer that the Government has characterized as extremist propaganda. At trial, Dr. Esposito will testify to the cultural bias and isolation experienced by Mr. Aldawsari as part [sic] explanation for his conduct (i.e., alleged blog postings, 'extremist' writings, and watching 'extremist' videos) and to support the defense of free speech.

Additionally, Dr. Esposito will testify concerning the following general subject matters:  

            • The meaning of jihad in the context of Islam

            • The context of Islamic religious thought and expression

            • Islam's affect on Mr. Aldawsari's cultural and political beliefs

Expert witnesses in criminal trials typically are well-paid.  Politico writer Josh Gerstein states that Aldawsari has hired "three of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in the Dallas area."  The lawyers listed on the defense witness roster, however, are Dan Cogdell and Paul Doyle, of Houston, and Roderique S. Hobson, of Lubbock.  A gag order has been imposed on the case, but Gerstein speculated that the funding outlay to assist an obscure Saudi student arrested in Texas may have come from the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington.  If such is the case, the choice of Esposito for his "cultural expertise" may have come about because of his long and warm relationship with the Saudi authorities.     

Esposito declined to be interviewed by Politico on the matter.  But the Georgetown professor is also described in the defense roster of prospective witnesses as having "testified as a defense expert in United States v. Holy Land Foundation ... (2008), and opined that Arabic speeches made by defendants had different[,] more benign meanings than their literal translations."  In the 2008 Holy Land Foundation (HLF) proceeding, Esposito's testimony was notably unhelpful to the defendants.  Academic acrobatics did not prevent the conviction of five HLF leaders -- Shukri Abu Baker, Mohammad El-Mezain, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, and Abdulrahman Odeh -- on charges of serving as a front for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

The HLF defendants were found guilty of ten counts of conspiracy to provide, and the provision of, material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization; eleven counts of conspiracy to provide, and the provision of, funds, goods, and services to a Specially Designated Terrorist; and ten counts of conspiracy to commit, and the commission of, money-laundering.  Abu Baker and Elashi were each sentenced to sixty-five years in prison, Abdulqader to twenty years, and El-Mezain and Odeh to fifteen years each.

Esposito's intellectual exercises in "explanation" of jihad may well take second place in the Aldawsari case to evocation of the defendant's alleged "victimization" -- i.e., "cultural bias and isolation" -- during his life in a non-Saudi environment.  In this manner, Esposito would seem to substitute for psychiatric expertise in the Aldawsari trial by attempting to justify Aldawsari's conduct as an effect of psychological stress.  The weight of evidence in the Aldawsari case may prove too great for Aldawsari to be found mentally incompetent, since he was monitored by the FBI making rational decisions and recording his intentions articulately.

But American legal authorities have argued for years over the limits of admissible "scientific" testimony.  In such a case, Esposito's "cultural expertise" may be admitted, as it was in the 2008 HLF trial.  But it is hard to imagine that if Aldawsari is found competent to be tried, Esposito's excuses for jihadism will ameliorate the defendant's situation.  The Georgetown luminary may also have it in mind, as noted in the defense witness list, to absolve Aldawsari's jihadist commentaries on "free speech" grounds.  Perhaps Esposito does all this for money, or he may believe sincerely in the extremist worldview he so assiduously defends.

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.  He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. 

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