MANHATTAN (CN) — As the government wrapped its case Wednesday against the Arizona man it says smuggled a New Yorker into Syria, where he died fighting for the Islamic State group, the defense balked at evidence that the plot involved a journalist aligned with a rival organization.
More than two weeks have passed since trial began against Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal, who could face decades in prison if convicted of recruiting Samy Mohammed el-Goarany to the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
El-Goarany is presumed dead after his older brother received a handwritten letter last year from the 24-year-old. “If you’re reading this,” the letter said, “then know that I’ve been killed in battle and am now with our Lord, inshaAllah.”
Closing arguments Wednesday hinged on a third man, Ateia Aboualala, a journalist for a Muslim Brotherhood television network based in Istanbul.
Prosecutors allege that Aboualala acted as an intermediary to smuggle the young recruit into Syria over Turkish border.
But defense attorney Sabrina Shroff told the jury that Aboualala’s political affiliation “cripples” the government’s case against el-Gammal.
“They’re like Yankees and the Red Sox,” Shroff said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. “It’s like Cowboys and the Giants.”
According to the defense, Aboualala’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood dates back to his time as an activist in the Arab Spring, when the party rose to power with the election of Mohamed Morsi to president of Egypt. Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in a coup d’etat, and Aboualala fled his home country with a bullet in his leg after the massacre in Rabaa Square in August 2013.
Getting a job with a Muslim Brotherhood TV network in Istanbul, Aboualala had been in Turkey when el-Goarany passed through the country en route to Syria.
Shroff said that the Muslim Brotherhood had still been committed to involvement in the political process, drawing the ire of the Islamic State group, which advocated a strict adherence to religious law.
“You’re not going to cross over [to ISIS], not when you’re that deep into the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shroff said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Negar Tekeei spent nearly three hours in his summation Tuesday arguing that el-Gammal, el-Goarany and Aboualala were all three devoted ISIS sympathizers.
“Let me be perfectly clear: Ahmed el-Gammal was a steadfast and proud supporter of ISIS,” the prosecutor told the jury this morning. “He proudly declared that beheadings had a magical effect.”
Indeed, el-Gammal said just that to Aboualala on Facebook on June 12, 2014, two days after the Islamic State seized Mosul.
Then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for a national state of emergency as the Islamic State’s offensive barged through the territory, as el-Gammal cheered on social media.
“I pray to God to grant them victory and control over entire Iraq and then the Levant; then we join them in conquering Egypt, and from there to Jerusalem, God willing,” el-Gammal posted on Facebook that evening.
Defense attorneys have depicted 44-year-old el-Gammal throughout the trial as “Jimmy,” an all-American man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes, drinks Red Bull and has a soft spot for former President Jimmy Carter.
Painting their client as a man with “no filter” and extreme opinions, the defense says el-Gammal merely exercised his quintessentially American right to free speech.
“We live in the United States of America, and we do not criminalize belief,” Shroff said.
“What the government is doing here is prosecuting an ideology, not a person,” she added later.
The government has denied that this is the case of a thought-crime.
“His actions spoke louder than his words,” prosecutor Tekeei said of el-Gammal.
The defendant flew on Oct. 6, 2014, from Arizona to New York City, where he stayed at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Queens.
This is where prosecutors say el-Gammal met with el-Goarany and put him into contact with Aboualala.
Prosecutors showed the jury dozens of exhibits of the three men communicating over Facebook, Twitter and encrypted chat platforms such as Cryptocat and Surespot.
El-Gammal stayed in contact with el-Goarany even as the young ISIS recruit was in Syria with the “company,” which prosecutors believe to be a code word for the Islamic State.
Shroff, the defense attorney, insisted that el-Goarany had fooled her client into believing that the “company” was an organization dedicated to rescuing refugees.
Two weeks after el-Gammal’s arrest on Aug. 25, 2015, el-Goarany posted a video on YouTube insisting that he had gotten to Syria on his own.
“Nobody financed me to come here,” el-Goarany said, as quoted in court filings. “Nobody bought my plane ticket. All that with my own money. Nobody showed me the way to get here. And nobody helped me along the way to get here — including Ahmed Mohammed el-Gammal, in America. And I’m making this video just to let the authorities know this.”
While prosecutors told jurors to use their “common sense” to reject this denial, Shroff insisted that el-Goarany had been telling the truth.
“It was Samy who decided to live with a brutal gang of thugs,” Shroff said.
While fighting with the group, el-Goarany married a 16-year-old girl named Alaa. Shroff said the wife was little more than a teenage “sex slave.”
El-Goarany “was a soldier on the wrong side,” the attorney added. “And he died utterly unrepentant.”
El-Gammal faces charges of material support for terrorism, conspiracy to support terrorism, and other related counts.
Shroff said only one of the players in the charged conspiracy fit the bill.
“Samy, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the only terrorist in this case,” Shroff said.
The case goes to jury deliberations Thursday after prosecutors present their rebuttal arguments.