The Justice Department blocked efforts by its prosecutors in Seattle in 2002 to bring criminal charges against Haroon Aswat, according to federal law-enforcement officials who were involved in the case.
British authorities suspect Aswat of taking part in the July 7 London bombings, which killed 56 and prompted an intense worldwide manhunt for him.
But long before he surfaced as a suspect there, federal prosecutors in Seattle wanted to seek a grand-jury indictment for his involvement in a failed attempt to set up a terrorist-training camp in Bly, Ore., in late 1999. In early 2000, Aswat lived for a couple of months in central Seattle at the Dar-us-Salaam mosque.
A federal indictment of Aswat in 2002 would have resulted in an arrest warrant and his possible detention in Britain for extradition to the United States.
“It was really frustrating,” said a former Justice Department official involved in the case. “Guys like that, you just want to sweep them up off the street.”
British intelligence officials now think that in the days and hours before the July 7 bombings, Aswat was in cellphone contact with at least two of the four suicide bombers, according to The Times of London.
Aswat was a highly public aide to Abu Hamza al Masri, the militant cleric whose North London mosque was a hotbed of radical Islamist preaching. In 1999, Aswat came to the attention of the FBI and federal prosecutors here as part of the investigation into the Bly camp and its founder, former Seattle entrepreneur James Ujaama.
As law-enforcement officials in Seattle prepared to take that case to a federal grand jury here, they had hoped to indict Aswat, Ujaama, Abu Hamza and another associate, according to former and current law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the case.
But that plan was rejected by higher-level officials at Justice Department headquarters, who wanted most of the case to be handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York City, according to sources involved with the case.
Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Justice Department had funneled terrorism cases to its New York office, which had a lot of experience in that area. This frustrated law-enforcement officials in Seattle, who thought they also had a track record for handling terrorism prosecutions — such as that of Ahmed Ressam, trained by al-Qaida and arrested Dec. 14, 1999, in Port Angeles with the makings of a powerful bomb hidden in his rental car.
Justice Department supervisors in Washington, D.C., gave the Seattle office the go-ahead to seek an indictment against Ujaama only.
Ujaama was indicted by a Seattle grand jury in August 2002, charged with trying to set up the Bly camp and with aiding the Taliban. He pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban and agreed to testify against Abu Hamza and others.
Aswat was not charged but was referred to in the indictment as “co-conspirator #2.”
In May 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced an 11-count indictment by a federal grand jury in New York against Abu Hamza, who allegedly sent Aswat to Oregon to scout out the proposed training camp. A department news release said “the indictment alleges that Abu Hamza was a terrorist facilitator with global reach — from aiding hostage takers in Yemen, to attempting to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon.”
At the time, however, federal prosecutors chose not to indict Aswat for reasons that are not clear. Asked why Aswat wasn’t indicted, a federal official in Seattle replied, “That’s a great question.”
There had been some confusion about whether Aswat was alive. But three years after the Ujaama indictment, the Justice Department has yet to follow through with the indictment of Aswat sought by its Seattle office.
Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said he could not comment on the discussions leading up to the August 2002 indictment that named Ujaama but not any of his co-conspirators.
Sierra said that co-conspirators, though not named in an indictment, may still be the subject of continuing investigations.
Mark Bartlett, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle involved with the Ujaama prosecution, also declined to comment on department discussions before the indictment.
Bartlett said the Bly investigation was very thorough: “They turned over every stone. This is not one where you say that, in hindsight, you could have taken extra steps.”
This past week, there have been conflicting reports about Aswat’s whereabouts.
Pakistani officials denied reports that they had taken him into custody. Other sources, including a U.S. law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case, say Aswat has been taken into custody.
Citing a federal source, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer two days ago cast doubt on whether the Aswat suspected in the London bombing is the same person who was involved in the Bly camp. But a U.S. law-enforcement official involved in the London investigation told The Seattle Times on Friday that it is the same person.
Ujaama, released from U.S. prison last spring, has been questioned recently about Aswat, The Associated Press reported, citing confidential sources.