Trial begins for Houston Al-Qaeda member accused of helping blow up military base
A day after the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the trial of an al-Qaeda member accused of helping blow up a U.S. military base began in Brooklyn’s federal court.
Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, 31, smiled as he was escorted into a courtroom full of suits and ties to accompany the navy-blue suit jacket on him.
The Houston, Texas native’s fingerprints were found along some packing tape used to bind a bomb onto a vehicle that was planned to damage a U.S. base in Afghanistan, prosecutors said.
“The sky was clear, the air was still, and then boom — a bomb went off,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Saritha Komatireddy told 16 jurors in federal Judge Brian Cogan’s courtroom.
Komatireddy turned around and pointed at Al Farekh, raising her voice as she told jurors the forensics team found “the fingerprints of that man!” on the bomb material.
The jurors watched with unwavering attention as Komatireddy delivered her opening statement to kick off the trial, which is expected to go on for weeks.
She referred to the frowning defendant as “an American who sought to kill other Americans.”
The charges are in connection with Al Farekh’s al-Qaeda membership from 2007 to 2014, when he allegedly became a member of the group’s external operations unit and helped plan the Jan. 19, 2009 attack.
Two vehicles reportedly approached the U.S. Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan before the first vehicle exploded, propelling a fireball and shards of metal throughout the base, according to court documents.
The blast injured multiple Afghan nationals, including a pregnant woman, as well as Mark Ferrell, a then-19-year-old U.S. soldier.
Ferrell, standing as the base’s watch, was knocked back and felt the barrage of metal and intense heat fill the air around him, prosecutors said.
He is expected to testify in the trial.
The second vehicle was planned to enter the base and detonate, but it fell into a crater created by the first explosion.
When the driver of the vehicle fled, he was shot dead by security, according to court documents.
DNA and 18 fingerprints matching Al Farekh to the vehicle brought him to the Brooklyn courtroom.
Komatireddy said that witnesses of fellow al-Qaeda members will build the government’s case.
But defense attorney David Ruhnke told jurors to take the testimonies with a grain of salt.
“The case is built in part by witnesses who have a deep interest in this prosecution,” Ruhnke said.
He cited two expected witnesses, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedizay, who allegedly tried to blow up a New York City subway car and later made a deal with the government.
Ruhnke also told jurors that DNA and fingerprints are not a definitive identification of a person, and prints on the bomb do not necessarily pin the crime to Al Farekh.
“The issue is not whether it happened,” Ruhnke said. “The real issue…is whether Mahmoud Al Farekh had anything at all to do with it.”
In a slide-show presentation, Ruhnke showcased an old picture of Al Farekh with long hair, wearing a red and black flannel shirt, a stark contrast to the shaved-headed man on trial.
Al Farekh grew up in Dubai before moving to Canada to attend the University of Manitoba from 2005 to 2007, court filings show.
There he joined the Muslim Students Association and became friends with co-conspirators, Ferid Imam and Maiwand Yar, with whom he went to Pakistan in 2007.
Al Farekh then began living under the alias Abdullah al-Shami, a common Arabic name meaning “Abdullah the Syrian.”
Komatireddy said Pakistan was an entry point to Afghanistan for al-Qaeda members at the time, but Ruhnke said Al Farekh went to the country for religious reasons.
Brooklyn’s Eastern District of New York has prosecuted more terrorism cases than any other district in the country.
The trial will continue on Wednesday.
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