Government seeks to shield terrorism trial witnesses from view

By JOHN SOWELL | The Idaho Statesman | Published: June 10, 2015

Prosecutors want to hide two witnesses behind a screen in an upcoming terrorism trial to shield their identities from the public and to allow them to testify using made-up names.

The measures are needed to protect the safety of both men and their families, prosecutors say. Revealing their identities could also compromise other ongoing criminal and intelligence cases involving national security, according to a filing in federal court.

Boise resident Fazliddin Kurbanov, 32, is accused of plotting to set off bombs at military bases and public areas where large groups of people could be killed. An Uzbek refugee who came to the United States in 2009, Kurbanov allegdly detailed his plans during a series of conversations with two FBI informantsand in written communications with the website administrator for a terrorist group in Central Asia.

He was arrested in May 2013, after FBI agents found chemicals and bomb-making components at his apartment near Borah High School during a secret, court-authorized search. He is scheduled to go on trial July 13 in U.S. District Court in Boise.

The government is also asking that four FBI linguists from the Middle East and Central Asia be allowed to testify under pseudonyms. They are being called to translate into English various communications and videos. None has testified in court before.

“The linguists fear reprisal against family members and relatives living in these countries if it becomes known publicly that they work for the government and/or that they testified for the government in a criminal proceeding involving the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Lucoff wrote .

The IMU was originally formed in 1998 to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, who has served since 1991. The group, which wanted to create an Islamic state, later allied itself with al-Qaida and the Taliban. More recently, it became a supporter of the Islamic State.

At the FBI’s behest, one of the two informants enrolled in a Salt Lake City truck-driving school that Kurbanov attended in January 2013. The man posed as someone who was sympathetic to what the government contends are Kurbanov’s extremist views.

The informant had frequent conversations during the two weeks the men were together about Kurbanov’s interest in explosives and holy war. Kurbanov allegedly spent hours with the man showing him videos dealing with terrorism and explosives.

Kurbanov also discussed potential explosive attacks he was planning in the United States, last week’s filing on the informants alleges.

The second informant briefly lived with Kurbanov in Denver in winter 2012. The discussions between that informant and Kurbanov were similar to those with the first, the government contends.

“There is a reasonable possibility that an IMU member or sympathizer might attempt to identify and harm the (informants) and their families in an effort to disrupt the case,” Lucoff wrote.

Kurbanov is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, conspiring and attempting to provide material support in preparation for, or in carrying out, the use of weapons of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered explosive device.

If convicted, he faces up to 20 years each on the conspiracy charges and up to 10 years for possession of an explosive device.

He also was indicted by a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City of one count of distributing information related to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. That case is on hold while the Boise case moves forward.

Authorities say that Kurbanov was planning an attack in the United States. During a secret, court-authorized search of Kurbanov's residence in November 2012, authorities said they found bomb components and chemicals.

In a series of emails in fall 2012 between Kurbanov and a person who used the online name ahmadi9777 and who said he was the administrator of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s website, Kurbanov said he was gathering materials for hitting targets in the United States. He also indicated that he didn’t know a lot about assembling bombs.

“In just a regular store, you know, both, the ammonium nitrate and sulphate are available. Gunpowder is available as well. There are AK, M16, bullets, everything,” Kurbanov wrote in one of the messages. “But we need to know how to connect the wires, how much and what to do. Also, it would be great if we learn how to operate the remotely controlled ones. While some are operated remotely, others will be by ourselves.”

Kurbanov was arrested May 17, 2013. He is set to go to trial July 13 in the Boise case.

Lucoff asked that a screen be placed to keep the two witnesses from being seen by observers sitting in the public section of the courtroom inside the James A. McClure Federal Building. Jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Kurbanov and U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge, who is presiding over the trial, would be able to see the two men.

If Lodge rules against using a screen, Lucoff asked that the courtroom be closed to the public while the two men testify. If that happened, observers would be allowed to sit in an adjacent courtroom and listen to an audio-only broadcast of the two men’s testimony.

Defense attorney Chuck Peterson has not yet filed responses to the motions. He could not be reached on Wednesday for comment.