NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Florida doctor accused of swearing allegiance to al Qaeda and agreeing to treat wounded militants has been unfairly ensnared in the scheme of a longtime friend, a defense lawyer argued on Wednesday.
Rafiq Abdus Sabir, 52, was arrested in May 2005 and later charged in a four-person conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda and another group listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
His trial began with opening arguments in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday.
Sabir and his longtime friend Tarik Shah, a New York jazz musician, offered themselves as a “package,” with Sabir providing skills as a doctor and Shah agreeing to train would-be warriors in hand-to-hand combat, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Rodgers told jurors.
“With these unique skills, Sabir and Shah knew that they could help al Qaeda,” Rodgers said.
But Edward Wilford, Sabir’s defense attorney, said Sabir was “just a tool” in Shah’s scheme.
“This is about Shah, Shah, Shah,” he said.
Earlier this month, Shah and another defendant in the case, Maryland cab driver Mahmud Faruq Brent, pleaded guilty to charges connected to the conspiracy.
A fourth defendant, Brooklyn bookstore owner Abdulrahman Farhane, was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
At the center of the case against Sabir is a May 20, 2005, meeting at Shah’s Bronx apartment, where Shah and Sabir took part in a ceremony swearing allegiance to al Qaeda in the presence of an FBI agent posing as an al Qaeda recruiter.
In the year and a half leading up to that meeting, Shah had been caught in hours of tape-recorded conversations, confiding he wanted to open a martial arts studio for “jihad training” and that he dreamed of being a “martyr on the battlefield,” Rodgers said.
Those conversations were conducted with Mohamed Alanssi, a paid Yemeni FBI informant who defense attorneys have said is unreliable because, in 2004, he attempted suicide by setting himself on fire in front of the White House.
At the May 20 meeting, Sabir’s first meeting in the alleged scheme, Shah and Sabir swore to obey “Sheikh Osama,” who prosecutors said is Osama bin Laden.
“I’m ready. I’ve been preparing for a long time. My spirit is ready,” Sabir said at the time, according to Rodgers.
Wilford portrayed the meeting as a legitimate step in Sabir’s spiritual development that had nothing to do with al Qaeda. “There is no instance on those tapes where Sabir says, ‘Oh yes, I want to treat wounded jihadists.’ That’s just spin,” he
Wilford said Sabir, who could face 30 years in prison, has agreed to testify.