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Cleric al-Masri backed plan for Oregon terrorist camp, founder testifies

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By Lena Jakobsson

 (CNN) -- The sales pitch was passionate: sprawling land along a desolate stretch of Oregon highway, ready to be turned into a pay-as-you-go terrorist training camp.

"It looks just like Afghanistan," wrote Earnest James Ujaama in his letter to prominent London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Ujaama asked for trainers in both the physical and spiritual aspects of holy war to be sent from London, so fighters could be readied for the Afghanistan frontlines for a hefty per-person fee.

Ujaama is a pivotal witness against al-Masri in his federal trial on terrorism-related charges and testified in a Manhattan courtroom Wednesday about his bumbling efforts to start an al Qaeda-style training camp in the United States.

The Egyptian-born al-Masri, whose fiery rhetoric allegedly set the likes of failed "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta on the path to radicalization, was extradited to the United States in 2012 after an extended legal battle.

Among the allegations against him is the claim he aided in terrorism efforts by sending two men carrying cash and training materials to Oregon in response to Ujaama's pitch. He could face life in prison if convicted.

Defense lawyer Joshua Dratel told the jury during his opening statement that no evidence shows his client gave directions or orders relating to the alleged crimes. Rather, he was merely a "commenter on events and issues" when he praised Osama bin Laden in his sermons and celebrated the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"These are ideas, not acts," he said. "These are expressions, not crimes."

During his testimony Wednesday, Ujaama said his letter to al-Masri promised scores of eager recruits who had already pledged their loyalty to the preacher, along with a hillside hiding place and personal security detail when he arrived at the camp.

They were amassing stockpiles of weapons and building living facilities, even a mosque, Ujaama wrote.

In reality, only two run-down trailers sat atop the barren ranch land, but Ujaama reasoned that things could be taken one step at a time: "If he accepted it, I'd know I had a buy-in and I'd start building."

Al-Masri's presence was crucial to getting the cash flow started, he testified.

"He'd be the star attraction."

When Ujaama called al-Masri to confirm he had received the detailed note and draft for a camp advertising flier, al-Masri first berated him for being careless and risking law enforcement interception, testified Ujaama, who faxed his letter to the high-profile British mosque leader from a Kinko's near his home in Tacoma, Washington.

Al-Masri nevertheless agreed to support the transatlantic venture, Ujaama said.

Another witness, Eva Hatley, whose husband owned the property, testified last week she had envisioned it as a "kitchen farm" where women from their Seattle Muslim community could come to learn to grow vegetables, canning and raising animals.

Hatley and her former friend Angela Morris said Ujaama arrived with al-Masri's men in December 1999 and that the pair's apparent leader was a physically imposing, temperamental man who claimed to have served as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. When he saw the conditions at the ranch, he flew into a rage.

"He was very upset. There were no men, there were no weapons, there was no hole for Abu Hamza," Hatley testified. She said the men discussed a plan to kill Ujaama and take his pregnant wife hostage until she gave birth to their child, after which they would kill her as well and take the infant.

Despite the disappointing state of affairs, al-Masri ordered the men to stay and continue the effort for several weeks, Hatley testified. They conducted perimeter checks and did calisthenics, and once made Morris' mentally disabled teen brother kneel in the dirt for a throat-slitting demonstration, according to testimony.

Hatley decided she had finally had enough when the men demanded she use a password to exit her own doublewide trailer, the soft-spoken woman testified.

"I got in his face about that," she said.

Not long after that, the men abandoned the effort and returned to Europe.

After his 2002 arrest, Ujaama himself faced charges of aiding terrorists through the Oregon plot and escorting a recruit from London to training in Afghanistan, allegedly on orders from al-Masri. He was released in 2010 as part of an agreement to testify for the government.

The trial of al-Masri opened less than a month after Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was found guilty in the same Manhattan federal courthouse of helping al Qaeda members conspire to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists.

Prosecutors said Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric, played a crucial role as the organization's principal mouthpiece and recruiter, helping "restore al Qaeda's trove of new terrorists" as deadly missions turned its members into martyrs.

Al-Masri cuts an unusual figure in the courtroom; missing one eye and both hands, he wears an occasional writing prosthesis on his right forearm rather than the infamous hook-like device he's often seen sporting in photographs. Opting for comfort, he asked his attorneys for sweat pants and T-shirts for the proceedings rather than a suit. He has said he plans to testify in his on defense.

Ujaama resumes his testimony on Thursday.
   
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