Law & the Courts

The Orlando Jihadist and the Blind Sheikh’s Bodyguard

Omar Abdel Rahman in 1993 (Reuters)
Connecting dots between two of the two biggest terror attacks on U.S. soil.

According to Fox News, Omar Mateen, the jihadist who carried out the mass-murder attack at a gay nightclub in Florida this weekend, was a student of Marcus Robertson, an Orlando-based radical Muslim who once served as a bodyguard to Omar Abdel Rahman — the notorious “Blind Sheikh” whom I prosecuted for terrorism crimes in the early to mid 1990s.

Robertson, a former U.S. marine with a serious criminal record, is now 47. That means he was in his early twenties when the Blind Sheikh lived in the New York metropolitan area. It was a commonplace in those days for the Sheikh to travel with an entourage, including bodyguards from various groups (e.g., his fellow native Egyptians, Palestinians associated with Hamas, Sudanese Muslims who lived in New Jersey, and — often in Brooklyn, where he frequented the Farooq and Taqua mosques — African-American Muslims, most of them converts to Islam).

In the spring of 1993, members of the Blind Sheikh’s cell were plotting to follow up the February 26 World Trade Center bombing with simultaneous bombings of several New York City landmarks (including the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the U.N.’s headquarters, and the FBI’s lower-Manhattan field office). The jihadists planning the landmarks attacks turned to a man named Clement Hampton-el for help obtaining detonators. In a conversation recorded by an FBI informant, Hampton-el explained that it had recently become harder for him to get detonators because his sources had recently been arrested by the FBI in Pennsylvania. He described these sources as members of a gang that robbed banks and post offices —activities ordinarily illegal under Islamic law but that, according to the Blind Sheikh, were permissible as long as a chunk of the proceeds went to support jihad. Before the FBI shut the gang down, Hampton-el said they had been able to supply “C-4s, M-16s, AKs, detonators, bulletproof vests — they had everything.”

In the recorded conversation, Hampton-el recounted being a longtime friend of the father-in-law of one of the arrested men. Because of that, he contributed money for the man’s defense. But to his great annoyance, Hampton-el learned that the arrested man had cooperated with the FBI and “talked on everybody.”

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At our trial, Hampton-el testified in his own defense, implausibly claiming that he had “made up” the story about the gang. But when we cross-examined him, he admitted to being a longtime friend of a man named Suliman el-Hadi, who just happened to have a son-in-law named Marcus Robertson. In a remarkable coincidence, Robertson just happened to have been arrested by the FBI in Pennsylvania, to have pled guilty to a series of bank and post-office robberies, and to have gotten sentencing leniency because he cooperated with the government. Grudgingly, Hampton-el conceded that he just might know Marcus Robertson personally, might have had some meetings with him, and might even have seen him in the company of the Blind Sheikh at the Farooq mosque.

Small world. Well, Fox News reports that in 1991, Marcus Robertson joined with other Muslims who were former security guards in a robbery gang they dubbed “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” According to a private investigator in Florida, the group committed armed robberies of more than ten banks, private homes, and post offices; shot three police officers; and attacked one cop after he was injured by a homemade pipe bomb. It is alleged that Robertson — Ali Baba — donated more than $300,000 of the robbery proceeds to mosques he attended. Fox says prosecutors also claim Robertson has committed murders in addition to using pipe bombs, C-4, and other explosives. Nevertheless, he has never been convicted of those things and was given extraordinary leniency in the robbery case, serving just four years in prison.

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Physically, Robertson is a very capable man. He served in the Marine Corps from 1986 until 1990, when he was reportedly discharged as a corporal, having been trained in marksmanship, scuba diving, counterterrorism, parachuting, surveillance tactics, communications equipment, infantry patrolling, and finance. Fox could not verify Robertson’s claims to have served in the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite counterterrorism unit.

Reportedly, his military training and involvement with both crime and terrorists convinced federal intelligence agencies that he might be a useful covert operative. This reflects a seamy side of national security, particularly in the field of foreign intelligence: The sort of people who can credibly pass for violent jihadists in order to infiltrate terror cells will often be former violent jihadists. Or, worse, they will be unreformed violent jihadists who pretend to work against the terrorists but are actually still with them. In any event, our agencies have to rely on a lot of bad people in order to learn what other bad people are plotting against us. They must constantly guard against being gamed.

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In Robertson’s case, it is reported that he agreed to work for the government, gathering intelligence both overseas and in the United States. According to Fox, however, he was expelled from the covert informant program in early 2007 after attacking his CIA handler in Africa.

By 2008, he surfaced in Orlando, and became known by his Muslim name, Abu Taubah. The Investigative Project on Terrorism reported in 2012 that Robertson was the imam at the al-Ihsaan mosque (formerly, the Islamic Center of Orlando). He also ran an online Muslim education enterprise, known for years as the “Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary” (FIKS) — although the name was recently changed to the “Timbuktu Seminary.” Robertson’s seminary has apparently been a springboard for lecturing gigs at universities in the United States and overseas.

#share#Omar Mateen, the terrorist who killed 49 people and wounded over 50 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando over the weekend, had enrolled in Robertson’s seminary. At least one other student of Robertson’s has been convicted (along with Robertson) in a case that had terrorism implications. Robertson’s lectures are said to include a staple of sharia: the condemnation of homosexuals — whom Robertson refers to as “devil worshipers.”

The government suspects — with abundant reason, it appears — that Robertson’s prominence in the mosque, the online seminary, and the teaching circuit have given him ample opportunity to radicalize young Muslim men: not only indoctrinating them in sharia-supremacist ideology but also possibly providing them with paramilitary training.

For example, Robertson is alleged to have instructed one of his Orlando students, Jonathan Paul Jimenez, to file false tax returns for the purpose of obtaining funds that would pay for travel to Mauritania for jihadist training. Perhaps I should say additional jihadist training. Prosecutors, Fox reports, produced intercepted conversations showing that Robertson had trained Jimenez “in killing, suicide bombing, and identifying and murdering United States military personnel.”

Of course, if the government’s evidence had been as compelling as the Fox report makes it sound, one would figure that Robertson and Jimenez would have been charged with terrorism crimes. But the statements outlined in the Fox report appear to involve Jimenez talking about Robertson, not Robertson himself volunteering anything incriminating. Robertson’s computers also raised alarms when agents searched them and found documents about terrorist ideology from the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, and military reports on psy-ops and interrogation. It is not illegal, however, to possess these items, notwithstanding their obvious usefulness to a trainer of terrorists.

In any event, it appears that Jimenez was charged only with false statements and conspiring to defraud the IRS. He was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

Robertson was apparently charged with some kind of minor firearms offense in 2011 and pled guilty in January 2012. Two months later, the Justice Department charged him with the Jimenez tax-fraud conspiracy, for which he was found guilty in 2013. In neither case did the government charge him with terrorism crimes. Yet prosecutors tried to slide terrorism into the mix at sentencing. They urged that, in imposing sentence on Robertson for the gun and fraud counts, U.S. district judge Gregory Presnell should factor in that he had been involved in terrorism activities, “focused on training others to commit violent acts” overseas.

#related#This is a too-cute-by-half strategy the government sometimes attempts: Get a dangerous defendant convicted on easy-to-prove, comparatively minor charges and then push the judge to give him a maximum sentence based on a “terrorism enhancement” — i.e., an allegation of terrorist activity of which the defendant has not been convicted. The strategy is legal because prosecutors are not technically asking that the defendant be sentenced on the uncharged terrorism crime; they seek a sentence at the top of the range prescribed for the minor crimes for which the defendant has been convicted. But there is no getting around that, were it not for the “unconvicted” terrorism conduct, the defendant would get a much lower sentence.

This rubs many judges (and probably a lot of Americans) the wrong way: Most of us believe that if prosecutors want to sentence someone for terrorism, they should indict and convict him for terrorism. That was plainly the feeling of Judge Presnell, who concluded that the Justice Department’s terrorism evidence against Robertson was weak. While not doubting the Justice Department’s insistence that Robertson is a bad guy, the judge rejected the ten-year terrorism enhancement and sentenced Robinson to time served (about four years) on June 26, 2015.

Judge Presnell and the prosecutors had every reason to believe that Robertson was a bad guy. Fox reports that while in custody:

Robertson was considered so dangerous, he was kept in shackles and assigned his own guards. Whenever he was transported to court, a seven-car caravan of armed federal marshals escorted him. He was initially moved into solitary confinement after prison authorities believed he was radicalizing up to 36 of his fellow prisoners.

Now, we know that Omar Mateen enrolled in Robertson’s online seminary. Is there more to the story than that? For now, we do not know. In investigating the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, the FBI will be chasing numerous leads. Some of these leads will center on the relationship between Mateen, an apparently trained terrorist, and Robertson, a former Blind Sheikh bodyguard whom the government has long suspected of training terrorists.

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