Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, April 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Al-Qaida Suspect’s Psyche Probed at Hearing

Psychiatric experts sparred for hours Tuesday on whether outbursts by a suspected al-Qaida operative in court and behind bars reflect a mind too troubled to stand trial later this month.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — During his third session with an accused al-Qaida operative, the forensic psychiatrist watched in amazement as the bombastic, masturbating and defecating man from past observations morphed into a calm and polite patient.

“In candor, I was so dumbfounded, gobsmacked, by the transformation that I was witnessing that I didn’t think to administer the psychiatric test,” psychiatrist Mark Mills testified at a dramatic three-hour hearing on Tuesday.

Mills took the witness stand in Brooklyn Federal Court to defend his view that Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun is mentally competent to stand trial later this month on charges related to attacks that killed two U.S. service members in Afghanistan in 2002.

Prosecutors also say Harun conspired a year later in a plot to bomb U.S. diplomatic targets in Nigeria.

If the case goes to trial on Feb. 27, Harun will likely continue his ongoing boycott of courtroom proceedings.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan ruled that he would not put U.S. marshals at risk by forcing Harun to appear in court against his wishes, as prosecutors had requested.

“I think the government is being very faithful to usual customs in very unusual circumstances,” Cogan said.

From his first court appearance on May 3, 2013, Harun made clear that he would not cooperate with his prosecution and incarceration. Harun threatened to kill the attorneys prosecuting his case as well as courthouse personnel. “I am a warrior,” Harun had declared at the hearing, according to a government memorandum. “And the war is not over.”

Since that time, Harun has tried to tear off his prison uniform while shackled, and he has lashed out at anyone connected to the case — including his own lawyers. Harun’s lead attorney David Stern, a partner at Rothman, Schneider, Soloway & Stern, recommended sending Harun a letter advising him of his constitutional rights at trial, but he doubted his client would read it.

“He might read it,” Stern told the court. “He might tear it up. He might eat it.”

While prosecutors claim that Harun is attacking the court’s legitimacy, defense attorneys argue that their client’s erratic behavior reflects the longtime unraveling of his mind following years of torture and ongoing solitary confinement.

Born in Niger and raised in Saudi Arabia, Harun fell into the Libyan custody in 2005, and he claims to have been tortured during roughly six years of confinement.

Released as Muammar Gaddafi’s government collapsed six years later, Harun was arrested for assaulting officers aboard a refugee ship with him to Italy.

In the year before Harun’s extradition, two Italian mental health experts were divided over whether he was “psychotic” or “normal,” and treated him with psychotropic medication, his lawyer said.

Mental health experts continued to argue the same controversy on Tuesday, as the witnesses for the defense and prosecution were called to the witness stand to defend conflicting medical reports, all of which are locked under a courtroom seal.

Mills, the government psychiatrist, confirmed Metropolitan Detention Center records about body armor Harun made out of milk cartons, his habit of talking to a mirror and the walls, and that he once danced naked out of a shower.


It was only when Harun’s symptoms disappeared during his final session that Mills revised his previous suspicion that this behavior probably reflected a psychotic disorder.

“You can’t turn it on and off,” Mills said.

Turning the doctor's words against him, defense attorney Stern quoted Mills characterizing most mental illness as episodic and prone to "waxing and waning," sometimes for decades. But Mills insisted that the difference he observed had been too "night and day" to be anything but "volitional."

Faking mental illness for personal gain is known as “malingering,” Mills explained, adding that Harun did not fit this profile “in the classical sense.”

“I think that it is clear that [Harun] feels significantly aggrieved,” Mills said.

To express that indignation, Mills testified, Harun makes life difficult for court and jail staff by refusing to shower, dress or use the toilet.

Jess Ghannam, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, criticized Mills for lacking the “cultural competence” to place Harun’s profane and scatological behavior in the context of his devout Muslim heritage.

“In the context of the Islamic tradition, that would be considered abhorrent,” Ghannam said.

Beyond the universal taboo, Harun’s defecating in his cell would also defile the space near where he prays, the psychologist added.

In a portion of his report displayed in court, Ghannam wrote: “During both evaluations, [Harun] was disheveled, unkempt and exhibited poor self-care and poor hygiene; poor even by the standards of correctional facilities.”

This too, Ghannam noted, would have violated the Islamic faith’s jurisprudence on hygiene.

If Harun’s defense team faulted the prosecution for missing cultural cues, the government used Ghannam’s outspoken views as a prominent Palestinian-American activist to attack him as biased. The cross-examination of Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Jacobs devoted more time to Ghannam’s political opinions and activism than to his medical analysis.

Ghannam, who hosts a weekly radio show called “Arab Talk with Jess and Jamal,” has rallied with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and worked with numerous civil-rights groups, including Reprieve, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

During one Nader rally, Ghannam’s political words collided as he spoke of his encounter with a 5-year-old Palestinian boy in Rafah, across the Gaza border.

“Unfortunately, I had to say, ‘I’m from the Empire,’” Ghannam told the crowd at this rally.

Referring to this comment, Jacobs asked: “You recognize that one of the parties that you call ‘the Empire’ is one of the two parties in this criminal matter, correct?”

Ghannam emphasized that he can set aside his personal views to give a medical opinion.

Trying to undermine this, Jacobs confronted Ghannam with a Canadian judge’s finding that the professor “did not live up to the standards of objectivity of an expert witness” in the case of Raed Jager, whom a jury found guilty of terrorism-related charges in 2015.

Where the prosecution’s cross-examination of Ghannam turned personal, Ghannam emphasized that his critique of the prosecution’s mental health experts was not.

“I think both of them are good clinicians, good forensic examiners, of course,” he said.

But Ghannam insisted that his ability to relate to Harun in a language that he understood — though not in his native Hausa dialect — gave him greater insight, even if he does not have Mills’ credentials as a certified forensic psychiatrist.

“It’s where cultural competency gives you a leg up on nuance,” he said.

Ghannam's exact diagnosis is under seal, but snippets of his report displayed in court suggest that he believes Harun suffers from a strain of paranoid schizophrenia.

Judge Cogan declined to rule from the bench on Tuesday afternoon, promising to issue a short opinion on Harun’s mental competence within a few days.

Categories / Criminal

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.