03 Mar 2008

Wasn’t There a Clue Here Somewhere?

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USS Benfold (DDG 65) Guided Missile Destroyer

If you are the US Navy, whom do you make a signalman on a destroyer going potentially into harm’s way in the Persian Gulf? Why Hassan Abu-Jihaad, of course!

But, I suppose, excluding someone from a high security assignment just because he has converted to Islam and was calling himself “father of Jihad” would be profiling, and we can’t possibly do anything so politically incorrect.


U.S. Navy commanders were wary as their ships headed to the Persian Gulf in the months after a terrorist ambush in 2000 killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole.

Passing the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow, busy shipping lane that often invited challenges from Iran, was never easy. Ship commanders decided to travel quickly at night after conducting a drill. Sailors took up machine gun positions and shut valves and hatches to limit damage in case of attack.

“We really weren’t sure what to expect,” said Lt. Commander Jay Wylie, who was on board the USS Benfold.

No one expected to find a threat from within.

But federal authorities say there was. A Benfold signalman, Hassan Abu-Jihaad, had provided suspected terrorist supporters in London with sensitive details of when U.S. ships would pass through the strait and their vulnerability to attack, prosecutors say.

Testimony last week in Abu-Jihaad’s trial has provided a window into the fears of top Navy officials after an explosives-laden boat rammed the Cole as it refueled in a Yemen harbor. It also revealed how heightened vigilance after Sept. 11 triggered an investigation that began in Connecticut and expanded to London before Abu-Jihaad and others were arrested.

Abu-Jihaad, 32, of Phoenix, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges alleging he provided material support to terrorists and disclosed classified national defense information.

Prosecutors rested their case Friday. Abu-Jihaad does not plan to take the stand Monday when his attorneys call one witness before closing arguments.

Abu-Jihaad, an American born Muslim convert, changed his name from Paul Hall in 1997. A year later, he was granted security clearance that gave him access to secrets, according to Navy officials.

Abu-Jihaad was one of the first sailors Petty Officer Josh Kelly met when he boarded the Benfold. Abu-Jihaad was chatty about where the ship was headed, Kelly says.

“We always wonder where we were going,” Kelly testified, noting the stress of life at sea.

But advance movements were a closely guarded secret. Dennis Amador, a quartermaster and Abu-Jihaad’s supervisor, told his wife where he was in code.

“We in the Navy are taught from the minute we come in that loose lips sink ships,” he said.

Those details were kept locked in a safe with a red sticker marked secret. But when the charts and travel plans were laid out, Abu-Jihaad could see them in his job as a signalman, Navy officials say.

The Benfold and other ships left San Diego in March 2001. Their first stop was Hawaii, where the sailors were treated to a luau feast.

As the ship headed toward the Middle East, Abu-Jihaad began to send e-mails to Azzam Publications, a Web site that authorities say provided money and equipment to terrorists.

While the Cole was the worst nightmare for commanders, Abu-Jihaad called it a martyrdom operation in one of his e-mails to Azzam and praised “the men who have brong (sic) honor … in the lands of jihad Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc.”

Abu-Jihaad signed the e-mail: “A brother serving a kuffar nation,” meaning nonbeliever or infidel, according to testimony. He also ordered graphic videos from Azzam that depicted Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Bosnia.


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