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What constitutes terrorism? 

Over the next two months, a federal jury will try to make sense of what John Mueller, co-author of Terror, Security, and Money, calls "easily the most confusing terror case since 9/11." Three young Muslim men from the Triangle have been charged with providing material support to terrorist organizations and conspiring with another local man, Daniel Boyd, to commit acts of terrorism overseas.

Since 9/11, it has been very rare for defendants to plead not guilty and to choose to stand trial in U.S. terrorist prosecutions. The upcoming trial could provide an opportunity to learn more about the defendants' motivations—and could shed light on the federal government's questionable use of FBI informants in building terrorism cases.

"The vast majority of these cases are plea-bargained. Most of these cases don't go to trial so you don't get that insight into the process and things that were being said," explained David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and a professor at Duke University. "These guys are going to testify, we're going to hear interesting things about the radicalization process."

Given the U.S. government's successful record in prosecuting terrorism trials, the odds that the defendants can avoid conviction are slim. A study of these trials by New York University's Center on Law and Security found a 92 percent conviction rate in the top 50 alleged plots since 9/11. And the Triangle defendants will be tried just one week after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, so jurors' sensitivity to security and terrorism issues could be heightened.

Prosecuting attorneys will argue that the men are guilty of providing "material support" to terrorists and engaging in a conspiracy to plan attacks on targets overseas. The terrorist acts, according to court documents, are vaguely worded, alleging that the men planned to "murder, kidnap, injure or maim" people abroad, possibly in Israel. Meanwhile, the defense could argue that the men were just young, blustering, anti-establishment Muslims who got mixed up with the wrong guy.

That wrong guy is Daniel Patrick Boyd, a tall, blonde, 40-year-old Muslim who also goes by the nickname "Saifullah," or "sword of God." A young convert to Islam, Boyd tested his faith by traveling to Afghanistan in the early '90s to fight alongside the mujahideen. In 1991, he and his brother, Charles, were accused of robbing a bank in Pakistan and narrowly avoided getting an arm and a leg cut off in accordance with Pakistani law. (The bank robbery charges turned out to be bogus.) The two brothers fled back to the U.S., and Boyd and his wife, Sabrina, also a devout Muslim, moved to a quiet cul-de-sac in Willow Spring, outside Fuquay-Varina, to raise their five children.

Boyd started a contracting company and also ran a small halal grocery store in Garner called Blackstone Market, which served as a meeting place for local Muslims. Friends and neighbors have told the Associated Press that he had "good moral character," and was the kind of guy who "would help anyone with anything." The AP also quoted one neighbor as saying, "If he's a terrorist, then he's the nicest terrorist I've ever met in my life."

Despite having fought with the mujahideen, Boyd didn't fit the profile of the terrorist ringleader. "In most terror cases you have a couple of young guys, college age, who hate the United States and policy in the Middle East," said Mueller, a professor specializing in national security studies at Ohio State University. "They don't seem very responsible or coherent. They often have criminal records.

"What's strange about Boyd is his age and his respectability in the community," Mueller went on. "He ran a business and is a family man. He's had these adventures overseas but it's not clear if he had any real connections abroad. All these things he said, he could have just been a blowhard."

The FBI apparently didn't think so. Agents had been watching Boyd since 2005; it appears that the Boyd family was aware of the surveillance. Dylan Boyd, also a devout Muslim, was later arrested with his father. In an FBI interview after his arrest, he said that helicopters flew over the Boyd home so often that the family joked about painting a peace sign on the roof.

Daniel Boyd began hearing rumors about himself in the community, according to testimony by Dylan Boyd, who stated that "his father was concerned about some kids in Raleigh who had gotten in trouble and might be saying they were involved with [him]."

So Daniel Boyd took the initiative to set up a meeting with FBI agents at a chain bookstore in Cary. His sons, Dylan and Zak, tagged along, terrified that the agents would take their father away.

On July 27, 2009, agents arrested Boyd, Dylan and Zak, who were both in their early 20s, on charges of providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to kidnap and injure people overseas. They also faced various weapons charges, including selling firearms to a known felon.

That same day, while searching the family home, agents unearthed a trove of potential evidence: dozens of automatic weapons, 27,000 rounds of ammunition, newspaper clippings about the Sept. 11 attacks as well as books and posters exhorting Islamic armed struggle and jihad.

Some of the charges were based on FBI informant testimony against Boyd and the alleged co-conspirators, who reportedly engaged in "military training" with Kalishnikov assault rifles in rural Caswell County. In one dramatic scene, Daniel Boyd allegedly points an AK-47 at a law enforcement helicopter and asks his son to get some ammo, according to informant testimony. In another incident, Boyd allegedly sees several military men getting out of a Humvee and says, "We should take them out. They're overseas fighting our brothers."

Yet a recent Mother Jones investigation raised ethical questions about the FBI's use of informants in homegrown terror cases. The FBI spends $3.3 billion annually on counterterrorism, and employs up to 15,000 informants, many of whom are watching Muslim communities.

"You have these informants wandering around mosques asking questions, probing them, trying to identify radicals—at some point it's just probing," Mueller said.

The informants in these cases frequently have some unsavory criminal history or have been persuaded to cooperate with the FBI because they're facing deportation. In some investigations, the informants have gone so far as to supply rockets, large amounts of cash and fake detonators to individuals who they think might have an inclination toward violence. The key prosecutable conversations between the informants and the suspects are often half-recorded, and sometimes not recorded at all.

"Law professors believe that the conversation should be recorded from the very beginning," Mueller said. "The very first suggestion has to come from the defendant. In some recordings from these kinds of cases, you never know whether the initial idea was the informant's idea or the defendant's idea."

Dylan Boyd met two of the defendants, Omar Hassan and Ziyad Yaghi, while he was enrolled at N.C State University. Around that time, Yaghi and Hassan started visiting the Boyd household to drink tea and talk about deen, or faith.

Much of the government's case against Omar Hassan and Ziyad Yaghi rests on a mysterious trip to Israel that the men took in 2007 with Daniel and Zak Boyd. The indictment asserts that the trip was a thwarted attempt at "violent jihad."

Hassan and Yaghi both gave Daniel Boyd cash to buy them plane tickets to Tel Aviv (why they didn't buy their own tickets is unclear). Their plane was scheduled to arrive in Tel Aviv a day after the Boyds arrived.

However, when the Boyds got to Israel, they were detained at the airport and questioned for two days before being promptly deported. A day later, Hassan and Yaghi were also denied entry into Israel. Both groups of men subsequently traveled to Jordan. From the evidence, it does not appear that they met.

After a couple of days, Dylan Boyd flew to Jordan to meet his father and brother, as planned. In an FBI interview, Dylan said they had no plan of connecting with Yaghi and Hassan. The Boyds claimed they were making a pilgrimage to Islamic holy places. Meanwhile, Yaghi and Hassan spent the rest of the month vacationing in Jordan and Egypt, where they both have family. When they returned home to the U.S., it seems that Yaghi and Hassan became estranged from the Boyd family. In an FBI interview Dylan Boyd said he hadn't seen or spoken to Yaghi and Hassan since the 2007 trip.

The prosecution also hopes to capitalize on Yaghi's and Hassan's spotty criminal records. Yaghi was convicted of stealing copper wire in Texas, and Hassan was charged with assaulting his girlfriend as the couple drove around Cary. Both men were also involved in an altercation with a former friend over $70.

Similarly, Hysen Sherifi's fate rests on what he was doing in Kosovo in 2008. That summer, after allegedly giving Daniel Boyd $500 "for the sake of Allah," Sherifi departed the U.S. for the town of Pristina with large amounts of cash. Sherifi's lawyer said in a court hearing that he went because his wife lives there and she was pregnant with their first child. He also has other family in Kosovo. When Sherifi returned to the U.S., he allegedly told an FBI informant that he had been "trying to go to the beach." The FBI says that "going to the beach" was a code phrase for "waging violent jihad." A later search of Sherifi's home in Raleigh yielded books with titles including Call to Jihad.

The idea of jihad figures prominently in the prosecution's case. Daniel Boyd and Anes Subasic talked about old cars, a conversation the FBI says was actually about "violent jihad."

In a subsequent indictment, federal prosecutors allege that Daniel Boyd and Sherifi planned to attack the Quantico Marine Base outside Washington, D.C. In court documents, the FBI says that Sherifi and Boyd went to Quantico with maps to conduct "reconnaissance" and that Boyd had a weapon that he referred to as "for the base." An FBI informant alleged that Boyd said that if he didn't leave the country soon he was going to "make jihad right here in America."

Imran Aukhil, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Raleigh, explained that the word jihad has many meanings, including a struggle within one's own faith. "Jihad is a very important term in Muslim life. It means struggle, and that struggle is not necessarily a physical outward struggle. The most common form of jihad is the struggle within oneself to avoid temptations and to reduce carnal lust and desires."

Last February, Daniel Boyd signed a plea bargain, admitting to the major charges. As part of the plea deal, which included a dismissal of the Quantico Marine base charge, he's expected to testify against the remaining defendants. Now that his sons, Dylan and Zak Boyd, have plead guilty, all of the indicted family members have admitted to conspiracy.

"The question is: Where does the conspiracy begin and end? You've got a group that's involved and some people are going to be more involved than others," said Schanzer of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

John Mueller told the Indy that the Boyds likely plead guilty to avoid receiving the maximum sentence.

However, in doing so, they, along with the prosecution, are shielded from publicly disclosing some information. It is uncertain if FBI informants will testify at next week's trial.

According to Charles Kurzman, UNC sociology professor and the author of a new book on Islamic terrorism, The Missing Martyrs, "One of the unfortunate aspects is that when there's a guilty plea or a plea bargain, then we don't get to see all that evidence. They admit in vague terms to doing something, but not what they did and how they planned to do it."

In Missing Martyrs, Kurzman describes how big-talk, radical young Muslims differ from Islamists with concrete plans to commit violence. Kurzman told the Indy, "Young people do sometimes pose for causes they think are cool and anti-establishment. Some young people say they support bin Laden because he's an anti-imperialist, anti-establishment figure in much the same way that other young people say they support Che Guevara—even though they know nothing of his ideology."

Kurzman recommends withholding judgment until the trial is over. "In all of these cases, you have to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Some of the cases crumble at trial, and in others the evidence is far more serious than we first learned."

Imran Aukhil, of the Islamic Center of Raleigh, echoed the sentiment. "The Boyds left the Islamic Center on their own terms. But the others have plead not guilty. They believe that they're innocent, and the Muslim community will stand behind them until and unless they are proven guilty."

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