A doe-eyed al Qaeda terrorist accused of conspiring to murder Americans sauntered into the second-floor courtroom in downtown Brooklyn clad in blue scrubs and shackled from his ankles to his hands.
Saddiq Al-Abbadi, 36, wore a long, dark beard, a brown knit cap, and was flanked by an Arabic interpreter, his attorney William Stampur, and over a half dozen FBI agents and federal marshals.
The security detail was a clear indication that the prisoner was nothing like the preceding a case—a run-of-the-mill fraudster. Guards in khaki uniforms clutching heavy high-caliber rifles were manning the building’s glass vestibule.
Standing awkwardly at the lectern before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom, Al-Abbadi seemed to have landed in a U.S. court spaceship. He answered questions slowly with a nod and swayed from side to side, rubbing his left wrist.
Perhaps his mind was elsewhere. Half a world away, in Al-Abbadi’s native Yemen, gun battles were raging as rebels stormed the presidential palace.
Judge Bloom quickly ordered the prisoner to be unchained. “The shackles—FBI, is he required to be shackled?” asked Judge Bloom. “We don’t shackle [sic] here. Please undo his handcuffs.” Two agents in suits complied and unlocked the handcuffs.
Al-Abbadi, who is also known as “Sufiyan al Yemeni” or just “Sufiyan,” is one of two Yemeni nationals accused of being al Qaeda terrorists. U.S. prosecutor Zainab Ahmad described him as a “longtime al Qaeda operative with close ties to senior al Qaeda [members] and involved in at least one battle in Iraq that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier.”
Just days ago, Al-Abbadi was plucked off the streets of Saudi Arabia with accused al Qaeda member Ali Alvi, who also goes by the alias “Issa al Yemeni” or “Issa.” The two were spirited to Brooklyn and Long Island, respectively, to face charges of terrorist acts from as far back as 2003 of conspiring to murder Americans.
A damning complaint released Tuesday by the Justice Department accused Al-Abbadi and Alvi of taking pride in fighting against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government also accused the pair of attempting to help a U.S. citizen from Long Island named Bryant Neil Vinas become a full-fledged al Qaeda member. Later, prosecutors say, Al-Abbadi and Alvi worked with senior members of the organization to hatch a scheme “to conduct an attack on the Long Island Rail Road.”
The pair face accusations that they dedicated their lives to waging war against U.S. troops as well as private security employees of Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2009.
The al Qaeda duo’s prosecution is perhaps one of the final major terrorism cases for U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who has been nominated by President Obama to become the next U.S. attorney general.
William Stampur, Al-Abbadi’s lawyer, told The Daily Beast outside the courtroom that his client is fully aware of the charges that could land him a life sentence in prison if he is found guilty: “He definitely understands what is happening.” But Stampur added, “If you’re accused of a crime from a couple of years ago and you’re innocent, it’s hard to say.”
The court-appointed Stampur also represented Najibullah Zazi, who was convicted six years ago of plotting an attack on New York City’s subway system using homemade hydrogen-peroxide bombs.
When Judge Bloom asked why the case against Al-Abbadi and Alvi is finally being brought after more than six years, U.S. prosecutor Zainab Ahmad replied that both wanted men were taken into custody only this week. “Mr. Al-Abbadi was being investigated for several years and the FBI arrested him in Saudi Arabia on January 19, 2015,” he said.
Al-Abbadi’s arraignment came two days after Alvi was remanded by a federal judge inside a federal courtroom several miles away, in Central Islip, Long Island. For years the pair—along with Vinas, who was convicted of supporting al Qaeda and is now a government witness—lived like Bedouins, moving from one al Qaeda safe house to the next. Using their ties to smugglers in Yemen and Iran, they were allegedly able to slip through undetected to what is known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.
According to the Justice Department complaints against Alvi and Al-Abbadi, the two men and their new American pal Vinas managed to get to Wana, Pakistan, and spend quality time with Abu Abdallah al-Jaziri, who at the time was “al Qaeda’s lead explosives expert.”
When Judge Bloom offered to discuss the possibility of bail on Tuesday, the prosecution quickly pointed out that the United States has “no extradition treaty” with Al-Abbadi’s native country, Yemen. And given the defendant’s deep network of smugglers from Iran to Afghanistan, prosecutor Ahmad said it was almost a given that Al-Abbadi would disappear. “We believe he’s a danger to flee,” Ahmad said.
According to the complaint against Al-Abbadi, through Vinas the feds managed to gain deep knowledge of the inner workings of al Qaeda and even learned that Al-Abbadi met once with its third highest-ranking member, two rungs down from Osama bin Laden.
Around 2006, when unspeakable images of U.S. guards at the Iraq prison Abu Ghraib torturing inmates were leaked, they helped inspire Vinas to take up arms and wage holy war. After the abuse against the detainees in the notorious Baghdad prison, and the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, Vinas traveled to Saudi Arabia and bounced around Iran and Iraq, hoping to get revenge and join the fight in Iraq.
In December 2007, Vinas was laying low in a safe house in south Waziristan, waiting to be “vetted for admission to al Qaeda.” The American was pressed on his intentions and initially was accused of being a spy by the organization’s top bombmaker. But those accusations cooled, and an al Qaeda facilitator informed the American that he could either battle in Afghanistan or Chechnya.
Vinas chose “violent jihad against the United States armed forces in Afghanistan,” the complaint states.
A month later, Vinas was in another safe house in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. While there he befriended Al-Abbadi and Alvi, who would go on later to vouch for him.
Al-Abbadi was there carrying a prized AK-47 rifle. He began showing off for Vinas with a clip from the weapon, which he claimed he’d taken in Iraq as part of the “spoils of war.” They then watched a jihadi video chronicling a successful attack against infidels in which Al-Abbadi—who is also referred to in the documents by the shorthand “Sufiyan”—is seen raising his rifle skyward in victory.
Despite Al-Abbadi and Alvi’s personal support for the American’s entry into the organization, he was initially refused admittance.
The trio were going to head to al Qaeda in Yemen, where it appears entrance into the ranks is less stringent, but another higher-up terrorist reconsidered Vinas’s application and he ended up becoming a fellow mujahedeen.
Vinas went through an al Qaeda boot camp of sorts—basic weapons training that included firing all kinds of weapons, tossing grenades and explosives, and mastering projectile weapons. Later on, he advanced his repertoire to include first aid, CPR, moving in formation in the mountains, coordinating attacks, and retreating “in organized fashion.” As the group sheltered at other safe houses in Pakistan, Vinas landed at a mosque where he claims he was shocked to see Al-Abbadi, who he was told had been killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Al-Abbadi, according to Vinas, was “meeting with the third-ranking member of al Qaeda (behind only Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri).”
After Vinas was brought into the fold as an al Qaeda member, he was given his own Kalashnikov and an alias, or kunya—a common cover for fighters to keep their true identities hidden.
The future informant Vinas soon became a member of a platoon of al Qaeda fighters and “launched rocket attacks against American and coalition forces.” After two months of steady battle, the emir who led the platoon was injured and they retreated from their post. In June 2008, Vinas and his group of al Qaeda soldiers ambushed an Afghan National Police station and its adjoining mosque in Gardez, Pakistan.
In October 2008, according to the complaint, Alvi had lost heart in the al Qaeda fight and ended up joining the Taliban, even participating in operations “alongside the Taliban in Paktika Province in Afghanistan,” where U.S. forces were stationed at the time.
On Tuesday, Judge Bloom decided to seal the case against Al-Abbadi, who is due back in court on Feb. 20, after federal prosecutors claimed the evidence against the fighter “is extensive” but also like to “involve classified information.”