TAMPA — Anyone who has ever flown in an airplane has experienced turbulence, but most people forget about it once they are safely on the ground. Not Sami Osmakac, the Kosovo-born American citizen on trial in federal court for plotting a terrorist attack in Tampa.
In an unusual defense, a psychologist retained by Osmakac's attorneys testified on Thursday that the 27-year-old began to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after a turbulent airplane ride in 2009. As the plane shook, Osmakac, a practicing Muslim, feared for his life and prayed he would be saved. The incident led to a "psychotic break" in which Osmakac became depressed and convinced that he had fallen out of favor with God, said Tampa psychologist Valerie McClain.
"The traumatic event in your opinion is turbulence during a plane ride?" asked prosecutor Sara Sweeney, her voice filled with incredulity.
"Yes," McClain said.
His depression, combined with the PTSD symptoms and psychotic episodes, made him unusually susceptible to outside influence, she testified. He also tested as having below-average intelligence.
Attorneys for Osmakac have argued that the FBI entrapped him, catching him in a sting operation in 2012 in which he bought an array of weapons, including a car bomb and an AK-47, from a man he thought was an arms dealer. The man was actually an undercover FBI agent and the weapons were defunct. But defense attorneys say that without the agency's involvement, Osmakac would have been clueless as to where he could buy weapons and how to use them.
Osmakac is charged with possessing an unregistered automatic weapon and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, the government's term for the car bomb it says he hoped to detonate outside of MacDinton's Irish Pub in South Tampa. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Dr. George Northrup, a Tampa psychiatrist hired by defense attorneys, testified on Thursday that after spending several hours with Osmakac in 2013, he diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder. The condition combines the hallucinations and delusional thinking often associated with schizophrenia with severe depression.
Northrup told the jury that after the traumatic airplane flight, Osmakac's family noticed that he was beginning to show signs of mental illness. He was depressed and had trouble sleeping. His older brother, Avni Osmakac, told Northrup that he had seen his brother talking to himself.
After his arrest, Sami Osmakac told doctors that he had been hallucinating and was hearing voices.
Though he had been religious for years, his views after the flight became more extreme, experts for the defense testified. By 2011, when he began arranging to buy weapons, he was convinced that if he killed non-Muslims and himself, he would be rewarded in the afterlife.
"When I talked to him most recently, he was still delusional," McClain said. "He still believed he could become a martyr."
But Sweeney countered that Osmakac's radical views were not necessarily symptoms of mental illness. More likely, she said, they were the result of his allegiance to terrorist organizations like al-Qaida that instill this belief in their followers.
Osmakac also was not as low-functioning as his attorneys made him seem, she argued. Before his arrest, he had held a job and traveled to Kosovo, Turkey and Turkmenistan on his own, she said.
Osmakac's attorney, George Tragos, said that although his client could appear normal, he often made spontaneous and illogical decisions. He abruptly quit his job to travel to the Middle East, Tragos said, and once there, he ran out of money and had to call his parents to bail him out.
Tragos experienced his client's opaque decisionmaking firsthand on Thursday, when Osmakac refused to allow him to call his older brother to testify that he had seen Sami carrying on a conversation with himself.
Tragos would not comment on why his client opposed his brother taking the stand, but he asked the judge to give him the weekend to talk to Osmakac.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.