We often hear about al Qaeda recruits taking a loyalty oath but seldom actually hear the purported oath being administered. A trial in Manhattan federal court today offered that very rare opportunity. The occasion was the ongoing trial of Rafik Sabir, a Columbia University-educated doctor accused of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Sabir, who lived in Boca Raton, Florida, until his arrest in 2005, is accused of volunteering his medical services to al Qaeda fighters.
Key evidence against Sabir and a co-defendant, jazz bassist and martial arts instructor Tarik Shah, has been a tape recording of them allegedly taking the oath to al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, on May 20, 2005, in a Bronx apartment where Shah and his wife lived. (Shah has pleaded guilty)
The government says the two friends are Muslim extremists who believed they were dealing with a Toronto-based al Qaeda recruiter named "Rahim." In reality, their conduit was an undercover then-FBI agent Ali Soufan, one of the few Arabic-speaking agents working in counterterrorism. Soufan testified today about the incriminating scene, which occurred in his last week as a G-man. (He now works for Rudy Giuliani's security consulting firm).
During hours of conversations secretly-recorded over two years, Soufan, acting the part of a recruiter, had invited Shah and Sabir to attend training camps he said were in Yemen. (He would contact Shah with a cell phone with Yemen's country code). The climatic, meeting lasted two hours and forty minutes. In court, prosecutor Karl Metzner regularly paused the tape playback so Soufan could explain what certain exchanges meant.
"Some of the brothers are getting emotional, but the message loud and clear from Sheik Osama," Soufan tells Sabir, early in the recorded conversation played for the jury. "You can only do something when there is an order to do it."
Metzner asked Soufan about the reference to Sheik Osama. "I just wanted to be sure Dr. Sabir knows, if he had any doubts, that I am talking about Osama bin Laden," Soufan told the jury.
On the tape, there is talk about moving "to the mountains" – code for Afghanistan, Soufan said – in order to wage "jihad," or holy war, and then "a desert now," a reference to Iraq.
Soufan, posing as a recruiter "authorized" to administer the "bayat," or oath, alternated speaking in Arabic and English to make sure Shah and Sabir understood their pledge, recited responsively, which amounted to this:
"I give my oath and covenant to God to be one of Islam's soldiers, until the word of God is exalted, and I commit myself along my brothers' path on the road to jihad. God's pledge is upon me and so is His covenant to commit myself to obey the guardians of the pledge, to exalt the word of God, to be protective of my brothers on the path of Jihad, and to protect the secrecy on the path of al Qaeda."
Soufan explained during the meeting the "guardians" were Sheik Osama and "Dr Ayman," his deputy, al-Zawahiri. They prayed. They said their goodbyes. Sabir and Shah were arrested a week later. Sabir was due to leave for Saudi Arabia the following week, according to the tape and travel records.
Sabir, 52, is on trial alone and faces 30 years in prison if convicted. His attorney, Ed Wilford, told the jury in opening statements that Sabir was manipulated by Shah. U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska rejected Wilford's pretrial motion that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute Sabir for carrying out his medical duties since he allegedly had "volunteered as a medic for al Qaeda military."
Shah, 44, pleaded guilty last month to agreeing to train recruits in hand-to-hand combat and faces 15 years in prison when he is sentenced in July. So does Mahmud Brent, 32, his former student and one-time Washington, DC cab driver, who admitted attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. A fourth man indicted in the conspiracy, Brooklyn bookstore owner Abdelrahman Farhane, 52, is serving 13 years for conspiring to send money to jihadists in Afghanistan and Chechyna to buy weapons and wireless communications gear.