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Terrorism trial in Tampa coming to a close

Charges against Sami Osmakac includes planning to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Charges against Sami Osmakac includes planning to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Published Jun. 5, 2014

TAMPA — Prosecutors began wrapping up their case in the terrorism trial of Sami Osmakac on Wednesday, after two weeks of playing recordings the FBI secretly made of him plotting to blow up a car bomb and take hostages in Tampa.

Osmakac, 27, who prosecutors have portrayed as a dangerous radical bent on killing any non-Muslims who crossed his path, had been under surveillance by the FBI for months before his arrest in January of 2012. He ultimately was caught in a sting operation, in which the agency arranged for an undercover FBI agent to sell him an array of weapons and videotaped him planning his would-be attacks.

He is charged with possessing an unregistered automatic weapon and planning 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.

Pleading not guilty, Osmakac, through his attorneys, has argued that he would never have been able to amass an arsenal of weapons if the FBI had not put them in his hands. In his opening statement, defense attorney George Tragos told the jury that while his client was a radical Islamist, he was not a criminal mastermind. Rather, he described Osmakac as a pathetic character: a mentally-ill young man with no money, ensnared by an agency that went so far as to pay a confidential informer money that he then gave to Osmakac to buy weapons.

Osmakac was using government money to buy government weapons, Tragos said. The FBI was on "both sides of this transaction."

Tragos has held to that line of argument throughout the trial, most recently highlighting comments the undercover agent made to his colleagues on the night they arrested the Kosovo-born American citizen. Accidentally recorded by the agency's own microphones, the agent called Osmakac "wishy-washy" and "disorganized."

Today, Tragos intends to call a psychologist and a psychiatrist to the witness stand to testify about his client's state of mind. Osmakac has waived his right to testify.

Prosecutors are expected to counter with their own experts, turning the final days of the trial into a battle over what Osmakac might have been thinking when he asked a man he thought was a weapons dealer to sell him an AK-47, grenades, a handgun, a 100-pound car bomb, and, in what could have been a gruesome finale, a vest packed with explosives.

Prosecutors argued on Wednesday that long before he ever met the undercover FBI agent, Osmakac had talked about killing non-Muslims.

Ashraf Elessawy, who attends the Islamic Center of Naperville in Illinois, testified about an encounter he had with Osmakac in 2011. The young man accosted him after prayer services and called him an infidel for not defending Osama bin Laden, Elessawy said. "We're going to kill all of you," he recalled Osmakac threatening.

Earlier in the trial, the undercover FBI agent said that Osmakac had tried to buy guns in south St. Petersburg from people he believed were selling drugs.

"That intent and that state of mind were in place before the government began interacting with the defendant," said prosecutor Sara Sweeney.

Evan F. Kohlmann, a counterterrorism expert retained by the prosecution, testified on Wednesday that Osmakac was parroting Muslim extremists who broadcast their messages online, targeting English-speakers alienated from American culture. He was reading the English-language magazine Inspire, created by al-Qaida members, Kohlmann said, and following a website that tracks the Taliban's latest exploits.

Did these terrorist groups provide Osmakac with money or weapons? asked Osmakac's attorneys on cross examination.

"Not that I'm aware of," Kohlmann said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

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