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Seattle case raises questions about war on terror

By Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
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SEATTLE, Washington (CNN) -- Where in the world is Ruben Shumpert?

By most expectations, the Seattle barber should be sitting in a federal lock-up serving time for gun and counterfeiting convictions in a case deeply colored by allegations of terrorism.

But in November, days before he was to be sentenced, Shumpert called an FBI agent and said he wouldn't be in court, authorities said.

Shumpert said he was in Somalia, the lawless East African nation far beyond the reach of the U.S. government.

In a second taunting phone call to the FBI, according to prosecutors, Shumpert said he and his associates "would destroy everything the United States stood for."

As he spoke, the FBI agent said, a crowd in the background chanted "Allah Akbar" -- the Arabic phrase meaning "God is Great" that is sometimes used to cheer someone on, or as a terrorist battle cry.

Shumpert's case -- which drew little attention before his flight from justice -- is now raising questions both about the man and the system.

Among the questions are these:

  • Why was Shumpert allowed to leave jail without surrendering his passport, as ordered by a federal judge?
  • Does Shumpert's escape to Somalia validate suspicions that he was a potential terrorist or simply demonstrate his fears that he was being unjustly prosecuted?
  • And, finally, is Shumpert now willing and able to attack the United States? Is he giving aid to America's enemies?
  • A Muslim convert

    Federal authorities say the case against Ruben Luis Shumpert began in 2002 when they received information a group of Seattle men were "speaking in bellicose terms" and using jihad rhetoric.

    The FBI began keeping an eye on Shumpert's south Seattle barber shop, where the men gathered, along with other customers.

    Using paid informants, the FBI gathered information on the group and surreptitiously recorded some of their activities.

    Informants told investigators Shumpert, an ex-convict who converted to Islam, frequently showed customers jihadist videos, including videos espousing violent attacks on the United States.

    The government also used the informants to buy a handgun and counterfeit currency from Shumpert.

    In November 2004, police arrested more than a dozen men, including Shumpert, who was then in jail for allegedly conspiring to do bodily harm to a neighborhood businessman with whom he had a disagreement.

    Police seized several firearms in the various raids and charged Shumpert with possession of one handgun, which was illegal because of his status as an ex-con.

    In exchange for a recommended sentence of 24 to 30 months in prison, Shumpert pleaded guilty to the handgun and counterfeiting charges September 20.

    As part of the plea agreement, he was allowed to go free on his own recognizance until his sentencing and was supposed to have surrendered his passport.

    Shumpert was never charged with terrorism crimes, and he said authorities misinterpreted his activities at the barbershop.

    He admitted showing customers jihadist videos, but said he did it to educate Muslims to reject terrorism. He said he also distributed anti-jihadist literature at his barbershop.

    And, he contended, there were extenuating circumstances to the crimes he was charged with.

    Shumpert's attorney, Jim Vonasch, described the barbershop as "a discussion place rather than a place where propaganda against the United States was promoted" and insisted terrorism "was not his [Shumpert's] agenda at all."

    Vonasch said he believes his client committed the crimes he was charged with, but said he felt Shumpert was targeted because of his conversion to Islam.

    "Even the government never claimed that my client was a terrorist," Vonasch told CNN.

    In a 12-page handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman last summer, Shumpert said he was initially reluctant to sell the handgun to his friend.

    He said he eventually did so because the friend said he needed it for self-defense and invoked an Islamic oath of trust. Prosecutors acknowledged Shumpert's characterization of the transaction.

    Shumpert also wrote that he sold the $2,000 in counterfeit currency during a moment of weakness and that he immediately regretted it and ignored entreaties for additional sales. (Read Shumpert's letter to the judge, PDF)

    Scores of Seattle residents came to Shumpert's defense, signing a petition supporting leniency and writing letters saying he was a positive influence on their community.

    Nipping terror in the bud

    Was Shumpert a terrorist or potential terrorist when he was arrested? From the moment the barber shop case became public in late 2004, there have been mixed signals about whether it involved terrorism.

    Investigators told the Seattle media they found no evidence of any link to al Qaeda or any other terrorist group, but court documents showed the government was investigating potential ties to terrorist organizations.

    And in a July sentencing memorandum, prosecutors recounted the jihadist rhetoric and "atmosphere of violence" they say pervaded the shop.

    But the memorandum goes on to say that "fortunately, it was eventually determined that individuals in the group were unable or unwilling to engage in acts of terrorism."

    Yet, two years after their arrests, none of the men has been charged with terrorism.

    "There was simply insufficient evidence to support a charge under federal law that he was actually involved in actual acts of terrorism or material support for terrorism," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Redkey told CNN.

    But David Gomez, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Seattle office, said: "Given time [and] given a little bit more investigative effort, we probably could have come forward with a charge, a material support of terrorism charge."

    Redkey and Gomez both said the case reflects the post-9/11 reality of federal investigations, in which the government places more emphasis on preventing terrorist attacks instead of building air-tight cases against criminals or terrorists.

    "Although this investigation did not lead to terrorism charges, ... it may have nipped it in the bud, before it had a chance to mature," Redkey said.

    "And from that point of view I think the FBI did exactly what it was supposed to do, accomplished its mission, and it nipped this one in the bud before it could become more dangerous."

    Threats against the U.S.

    Shumpert's earlier condemnation of terrorism notwithstanding, government officials said it is clear he has ill intent now.

    On November 18, three days before he was scheduled to be sentenced by Pechman, Shumpert telephoned an FBI agent involved in the case and said he was in Somalia.

    Shumpert said he finally felt free and did not intend to return to the United States, the FBI agent said.

    FBI officials said they confirmed the call originated in Somalia.

    Shumpert called again November 27, the FBI agent said.

    He "made what I interpreted as veiled threats on my life, saying that he and I were in a battle and that we were sworn enemies from this day forward," Special Agent Robert Walby wrote.

    "He then added that he and his Muslim associates would destroy everything the United States stood for."

    Was Shumpert radicalized by the process?

    "Absolutely not," Gomez said. "He was radicalized before he came to our attention."

    Shumpert's mother, Debra Kinzy, said her son was not -- and is not -- a terrorist. "It's not like they made it out to be," she said.

    But she doesn't think he'll be turning himself in, because he knows the consequences of doing that.


    vert.shumpert.fbi.jpg

    The FBI believes Ruben Shumpert fled to Somalia after he pleaded guilty to gun and counterfeiting charges.

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