October 19, 2010

Millennium Bomb Terrorist Meskini Was Involved in Drugs, Fraud, U.S. Says

Abdelghani Meskini, convicted after informing on a foiled al-Qaeda plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during millennium celebrations, got into drugs and prostitution after prison, U.S. prosecutors said.

Meskini, 42, an Algerian who pleaded guilty in 2001 to charges stemming from the foiled attack, was sentenced to six years in prison after he testified against a co-conspirator, Mokhtar Haourari and another co-conspirator.

Prosecutors said at a two-day hearing beginning Oct. 13 that Meskini, who helped finance the terror plot through bank fraud, slipped back into a life of crime. He became a willing participant in drug dealing, prostitution and bank fraud after he was released from prison in 2005 and took a job as a manager for a suburban Atlanta apartment complex. His criminal conduct violates terms of his prison release, prosecutors said.

Meskini helped commit bank and credit card fraud, obtained an automatic weapon and proofread a prostitute’s advertisements, prosecutors and witnesses said. When he lost his job in 2009, prosecutors claim Meskini was “ready to snap” and began visiting Jihadi websites, where he expressed anti-American sentiments and attempted to obtain an AK-47 assault rifle.

“These complexes were small, but they were basically a hotbed of criminal activity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher LaVigne told U.S. District Judge John Keenan Oct. 13. “There were prostitutes, and there were drugs. The prostitutes operated openly, the drugs were sold openly. He directly assisted those tenants with their criminal activity.”

Longer Sentence

Keenan, based in New York, presided over the millennium bombing case. He held the hearing to determine if Meskini violated his supervised release from prison. Keenan could order Meskini to serve additional prison time as early as Oct. 19, when relevant testimony is scheduled to resume.

Meskini is one of a handful of Islamic terrorists to have pleaded guilty, cooperate and win release from prison. His case highlights the difficulty some U.S. cooperating witnesses face, such as Salvatore “Bull” Gravano.

He testified against organized crime boss John Gotti in 1992. After being sentenced to five years in prison for admitting 19 murders, Gravano moved to Arizona where he was later convicted of state drug charges.

The so-called millennium plot was thwarted when Ahmed Ressam, another Algerian, was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999, while transporting explosives across the U.S.-Canadian border near Seattle. Meskini, who was living in Brooklyn, New York, was charged after his telephone number was found in Ressam’s pocket.

Meskini testified as a government witness against two co- conspirators in the plot in 2001 federal trials. After being sentenced to 6 years in prison by Keenan in January, 2004, he was released from prison in 2005 after receiving credit for time served and good behavior. He could have faced more than 100 years in prison, the U.S. said.

Re-Arrested

U.S. immigration authorities arrested Meskini in November. The FBI re-arrested him in Georgia in March, charging him with nine release violations. Prosecutors said that by 2006 Meskini had returned to a life of crime. He has paid only $31,000 of the $60,000 he owes in restitution, they said.

Mark DeMarco, Meskini’s lawyer, said in an Oct. 16 interview that his client never owned a handgun or attempted to obtain an AK-47. He noted that the U.S. hasn’t charged his client with any terrorism-related crimes.

DeMarco said the two witnesses the government called, Roughton, an admitted crack user, and Ricky Stephenson, currently imprisoned on bank fraud charges, aren’t credible.

“His employment was approved by the United States government, and the government was aware of the tenants of the complexes that he managed,” DeMarco told Keenan at the Oct. 13 hearing.

“Did he associate with his tenants?” DeMarco said. “He did. It was a responsibility of his employment to collect rent, to fix apartments and to do what one would expect a building manager to do,” he said.

‘Pimp’

Crystal Roughton, who said she is a prostitute and daily crack cocaine user, testified that she befriended Meskini, whom she knew as “Ghani” and “Johnny,” when she moved to the complex he managed.

Roughton said he helped her obtain a laptop computer for her escort business, gave her money when she couldn’t pay the rent or needed to buy drugs. She said Meskini even proofread the online escort-service ads she posted, because she described herself as “a terrible speller.”

“I recall him telling me how to background check my clients, screen them,” Roughton said. “I would recall him going over my ads with me and helping me. His goal was to help me be able to be by myself, to stand alone so I didn’t need a pimp.”

Meskini also befriended other prostitutes who lived in the complexes he managed and received sexual favors from her and the women in return, she said.

‘An Eyesore’

Ricky Stephenson, currently imprisoned on bank fraud charges, said Meskini was closely involved with the criminals and prostitutes who lived at the complex. He said the apartments were located in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, adjacent to a building where movie director-writer Tyler Perry, who has created the “Medea” movies, occupied a penthouse that Stephenson said was worth $4 million.

“But this was prostitution, pimps, hustlers, drug dealers,” Stephenson testified. “It was just an eyesore, like the ‘hood in Buckhead,” he said. “Think of just the worst place in the projects, and then you sit it on Rodeo Drive.”

Meskini, who told him he’d been in prison on forgery charges, “interacted with everybody and everybody pulled to Johhny,” he said. Meskini once lent him about $1,600, he said.

“Johnny was intact,” Stephenson said. “He was in tune with what was going on. He didn’t, you know, as far as my knowledge, didn’t sell drugs, but he did other things as far as hustling and stuff to make a little money.”

Canada

In 2007, Stephenson said, Meskini asked him to get fake IDs for “some people in Canada.” Stephenson said he rejected Meskini’s request.

During the year and a half he lived in the apartment complex, Stephenson said he gave Meskini fake checks, fake Social Security cards and that Meskini permitted Stephenson to use mail boxes at the complexes he managed as a drop for his various fraud schemes Stephenson operated.

Federal agents searched Meskini’s computer and invoked the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Surveillance Act to locate e- mails sent from Meskini’s e-mail account to Jihadi websites, FBI Agent James Pinette, of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Atlanta, testified.

The FBI found in Meskini’s e-mails a manual on how to operate a rocket-propelled grenade, an image of the Statue of Liberty with its torch-bearing arm being blown off, a picture of Osama bin Laden and photos of bloodied corpses accompanied by a message, “I wanted to share these pics with you to keep you going and never give up,” according to a message the BBI says was found in his e-mail account.

Jihad Book

Agents also found on the computer a book about “The Obligation to Conduct Jihad,” LaVigne said. Meskini also downloaded stories about the Nov. 5, shooting of 13 people at Ft. Hood U.S. military installation, which was allegedly carried out by U.S. Army major Nidal Hasan, LaVigne said in documents he gave to the judge.

Meskini also conducted Google Map searches for U.S. Army installations at Ft. Stewart and Ft. McPherson, both located in Georgia, LaVigne said.

Both Roughton and Stephenson said they saw Meskini with a black, automatic handgun which he kept in his pickup truck in 2007. After Meskini lost his job in September, 2009, when the complex was shut down by police, Roughton testified Meskini seemed despondent about being unable to find a new job. He asked her to help him obtain an AK-47.

“His temperament was more angerly,” Roughton said. “He said he felt like he was dying” and told her he wanted to return to Morocco to see his parents. She said she didn’t know about Meskini’s terrorism background. She said he told her he had been in prison “for numbers.”

Meskini said he wanted the AK-47, “because he needed -- he was AWOL from the military and he might need it to get home,” Roughton testified.

Never Questioned

“I never questioned Ghani,” she said. “Anything he said, I never questioned anything,” she said. Roughton said she promised him she’d “get on it.” Meskini later asked for her personal e-mail address and directed her to accept a message on his behalf from an unknown individual who posted an image of an AK-47.

Roughton said she made inquiries with people she called “discreet gentlemen” to obtain the weapon on his behalf. He later told her he’d already obtained one. Meskini was questioned later by FBI agents, who arrested him this year after U.S. Immigration officials took him into custody.

In October, Meskini sent her an e-mail stating, “Thanks a lot after all the help. After all I have done for you, this is how you repay the favor.” He was arrested by immigration officials in November.

LaVigne asked her how she felt. Roughton sighed and said:“To tell you the truth, I was heartbroken.”

The case is U.S. v. Abdelghani Meskini, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

By Patricia Hurtado - Oct 17, 2010 8:34 PM CT

http://www.bloomberg.com/

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