ATLANTA — A former Georgia Tech student with North Georgia ties charged with plotting to help terrorist groups turned the closing arguments in his federal trial on Thursday into a bewildering lesson on Islamic principles amid stunned courtroom observers.
Syed Haris Ahmed, 24, had waived his right to a jury trial so he could deliver closing arguments and warned last month he would use his time to focus on the "message of Islam."
Even so, the judge, prosecutors and even his defense attorney seemed unprepared: He read nine verses of the Quran in Arabic and never directly addressed the charges that could land him 15 years in federal prison.
"I hope that if I deliver the message that has been revealed by Allah, the promise of protection from evil will come to me," Ahmed said during the hushed and sometimes stumbling 45-minute address.
Prosecutors contend that Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee took a 2005 road trip to Washington, D.C., to shoot 62 "casing videos" of the Pentagon, the Capitol and other landmarks they wanted to send overseas to earn the respect of foreign terrorists.
The clips, as well as Ahmed’s alleged attempts to connect with terrorists in Canada and Pakistan, are at the center of federal charges that he provided support for terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.
Ahmed, a native of Pakistan and a U.S. citizen, moved to Dawsonville with his family in 2003 after attending Centennial High School in Roswell. His father is a professor of computer science at North Georgia College & State University.
Sadequee, who has also pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to go on trial in August. He also is a U.S. citizen.
"The case is not about throwing bombs and shooting soldiers, it’s about providing support for those activities," said assistant U.S. attorney Robert McBurney, who later evoked images of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The whole point is to get to the would-be terrorist before he enrolls in flight school and figures out how to fly a commercial airline," he said.
Defense attorney Jack Martin countered that federal investigators overstated the videos’ importance and claimed the talk was boastful chatter from a misguided student.
"These were random thoughts, no plans, essentially a bull session about what we could do if we ever wanted to do something," Martin said.
Federal authorities say they began building a case after the pair took a bus to Toronto in March 2005 and brainstormed potential terror sites with at least three other targets of an FBI investigation.
They contend Ahmed wanted to translate his plot into action, pointing to his videos of national landmarks as well as lesser known locales such as a Masonic Temple in northern Virginia.
And McBurney argued he took another step toward acting on his plot when he traveled to Pakistan on a one-way ticket in July 2005 to seek out paramilitary training. He returned to Atlanta about a month later after abandoning his attempt to join the group.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors presented a written statement by Ahmed that he and Sadequee practiced with paintball guns in the woods of Dawson County to "prepare myself for the next phase of Jihad training."
When Martin tried to rebut the allegations earlier in the day, he was abruptly cut off mid-sentence, by his own client.
"I am supposed to deliver the closings," Ahmed said.
The defendant, wearing a white skullcap and scraggly beard, got his chance a few hours later when he walked to the podium directly in front of U.S. District Judge William Duffey.
He said no one harassed him about his beliefs during his 10 years living in Georgia, and said he only wanted to help the public understand his faith.
He spoke of linguistic similarities between Hebrew and Arabic, quoted from the Quran and the Bible, and delved into some of the shared beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"The Christians of America, my message is this: We worship the same God," he said.
Duffey, who did not issue an immediate ruling, sat motionless with his eyes firmly fixed on Ahmed as he spoke. After the defendant finished, Duffey said Ahmed had veered from a written statement he had submitted and noted the smirk on his face.
But the judge allowed Ahmed to continue, partly to remind him he lives in a "remarkable" country.
"This is not a case about your faith, nor is it a case about my faith," he said. "This is about your conduct."