Al Qaeda training camp described in Padilla trial
A witness tells the court he learned war tactics to defend Muslims.
miami — A government witness testified Friday about the Al Qaeda training camp terrorism defendant Jose Padilla is alleged to have attended, but described the weapons and explosives training he received there as part of a religious duty to defend Muslims in foreign conflicts, not to engage in terrorism.
Yahya Goba, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen of Yemeni descent, had been expected to tell the jury about terrorist tactics espoused by Al Qaeda at the Al Farooq camp, where prosecutors allege Padilla also had trained. Prosecutors say Padilla attended the camp in the summer of 2000; Goba was there in the spring of 2001.
Goba is serving a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to aid a foreign terrorist group. His testimony came in the trial of Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, and two other defendants.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke warned government attorneys against trying to equate Goba’s experiences at Al Farooq with what Padilla might have done at the camp, if he was ever there.
She also told the jury that Goba, convicted four years ago as part of the “Lackawanna Six” terrorism support group, had no connection to Padilla or two others on trial on charges of conspiracy to kill, kidnap or maim people abroad and of material support to terrorists.
Goba recounted his journey with fellow Muslims from Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., via London, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan to the camp near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Under the limits Cooke imposed on prosecutors to keep questions relevant to the Padilla case, Goba disclosed only that he spent six weeks at the camp with about 150 other foreigners, mostly Arabs, training in small groups to learn firearms, explosives, warfare tactics and map and compass reading.
The witness, a portly, softspoken husband and father serving a reduced sentence in exchange for cooperation in other government cases, told the court he had filled out a “mujahedin data form” identical to the one that prosecutors said Padilla signed and which they introduced as evidence Thursday.
Under questioning from Asst. U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier, Goba characterized the training as similar to a military boot camp. But the witness said nothing about terrorist aims of his own or of anyone else at the camp.
Under cross-examination by Padilla’s public defender, Michael Caruso, Goba said he undertook the training because he wanted to help beleaguered Muslims in places like the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo — the same aims defense lawyers have ascribed to Padilla and co-defendants Kifah Wael Jayyousi and Adham Amin Hassoun.
“Are you now or have you ever been a terrorist?” Caruso began, employing the phraseology of the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. “No,” replied Goba. He gave the same monosyllabic response when asked whether he ever intended to kill, kidnap, maim or hurt anyone.
Jayyousi’s lead attorney, William Swor, similarly contested the prosecution’s portrayal of “jihad,” eliciting from Goba that the Arabic word for “struggle” often refers to peaceful efforts to halt injustice. “It’s a different jihad to protect and come to the aid of Muslims suffering,” Goba, dressed in tan prison garb, said.
At the end of the first week of a trial expected to last four months, the jury was left with a more benign picture of what Goba engaged in and what Padilla has been accused of pursuing than the government intended.
“The impression is now left with the court that the only reason people go to this camp is for peaceful reasons, the ‘inner struggle,’ ” Frazier fumed when Cooke refused to allow him to probe Goba’s views of what Al Qaeda wanted from the training.
“His goal here is to get Al Qaeda’s credo into this case through this witness,” said Jeanne Baker, an attorney for Hassoun said of Frazier.
Cooke said she would decide this weekend whether to permit further questioning of Goba when the trial resumes Monday.
Meanwhile, a second juror was dismissed by Cooke when the court discovered he isn’t a U.S. citizen — a fact indicated on his questionnaire but overlooked by the court. On Thursday, another black male juror was excused after being injured when he tried to thwart a car thief. Both replacement jurors are Latino men, reconfiguring the jury to five Latinos, four whites and three African Americans.
Prosecutors say Jose Padilla, who is pictured in 2006, attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.