Three members of an Islamic terrorist cell who were on the verge of attacking the Israeli consulate, an El Al ticket counter and two synagogues, face up to 20 to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court to conspiring to levy war against the United States.
The carefully planned plot was discovered by chance in July 2005. Authorities say it was closer to going operational than any other terrorist plan since Sept. 11 and engaged a joint task force of 350 federal, state and local investigators.
Kevin Lamar James, 31, and Levar Haley Washington, 28, entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana last week, and a third defendant, Gregory Vernon Patterson, 27, entered his plea with the court on Monday.
A fourth cell member, Hammad Riaz Samana, was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial and is undergoing psychiatric care at a federal prison, federal prosecutors say.
James founded the cell as Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), translated as Assembly of Authentic Islam, from his jail cell in 1997 and then recruited fellow Black Muslim converts at the New Folsom prison near Sacramento.
Torrance police stumbled on the cell when they arrested Washington and Patterson in a string of gas station robberies intended to raise money for the planned attacks.
A search of Washington's apartment yielded "jihadist" literature, a cache of weapons, a target list and a lead to James as the JIS leader. A search of the latter's cell produced the draft of a press release to be issued after the first attack, which included a warning to "sincere Muslims" to avoid potential targets, including "Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of an Israeli state."
Listed as planned targets were National Guard and military installations and a range of Jewish targets, such as the "Headquarters of Zion," followed by the address of the Israeli consulate, an unexplained "Camp site of Zion," and the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport -- the site of a murderous rampage in 2002, which killed two Israeli Americans -- and two synagogues.
Ehud Danoch, Israeli consul general here in 2005, recalled the threatened attack on his office and staff as the tensest days in his three-year tenure during a recent farewell interview.
The two synagogues, which were likely to be assaulted during Yom Kippur services, have never been officially identified, but are located in the heavily Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood of the city.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Amanda Susskind praised the work of law enforcement agencies in the case and reaffirmed that ADL will continue to monitor extremism in prisons, the radicalization of Islam, and domestic terrorist threats.
The successful conclusion of the case reversed a string of setbacks by the U.S. Justice Department in trying to convict alleged terrorists in American courts, such as last week's refusal by a federal jury in Miami to convict seven indigent men, who allegedly plotted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Report Finds UCI Acted Appropriately
A federal civil rights investigation has cleared University of California, Irvine administrators of allegations that they systematically turned a blind eye to intimidation and harassment of Jewish students over a four-year period.
The ruling by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in San Francisco, made public Dec. 12, was in response to a complaint filed by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).
The complaint cited a long series of incidents in which Muslim and Arab students and extremist Muslim speakers had vilified Jews and incited against "Zionists" and Israel, without appropriate response by campus administrators.
Among the cited incidents were threats against students wearing Star of David and pro-Israel T-shirts, vandalism of a Holocaust memorial exhibit and a one-hour speech in which a Muslim cleric attacked "the apartheid state of Israel" and its "Nazi behavior," as well as "American imperialism" and "the Zionist-controlled media."
The federal ruling, which closed a three-year probe, found that while such acts were "offensive to Jewish students," the incidents were "based on opposition to the policies of Israel," and not on the "national origin" of the Jewish students.
UCI Chancellor Michael Clark welcomed the report and asserted that "we remain firmly committed to freedom of speech and open discourse ... and equally committed to maintaining a safe, non-threatening environment for all members of our community."
Manuel Gomez, who as UCI vice chancellor for student affairs dealt with the issue on an ongoing basis, said that he was particularly pleased by the report's finding that the "university responded in a prompt and effective manner" to campus incidents.
A different reaction came from Susan B. Tuchman, director of ZOA's Center for Law and Justice in New York, who said that she was "obviously disappointed and outraged.
"This was a difficult case, but the evidence was clear that Jewish students had been harassed and that the university had not responded adequately," she said.
Tuchman had drafted the ZOA complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, she said, defined Jews not only as a religious but also an ethnic group under the "national origin" clause.
She blamed a change in leadership at the Office of Civil Rights, shortly after she filed the complaint in October 2004, for narrowing the protection afforded Jewish plaintiffs.
Tuchman warned that the federal decision "sent a very depressing message that the agency will not afford protection to Jewish students and this will embolden the perpetrators of hate actions on campuses."
She added that ZOA was now weighing its options to pursue the matter.
At the time ZOA filed the complaint, some local Jewish officials characterized it as a misguided effort by outsiders.
Kevin O'Grady, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Orange County/Long Beach, said that he remained skeptical that the ZOA action had been an effective way to deal with the campus administration.However, O'Grady faulted the federal report as "too dismissive" of the Jewish students' complaints, including the rejection of some alleged incidents because they occurred more than 180 days before the filing of the complaint.
"I also find it astonishing that when a campus speaker urges that all Jews be thrown into the sea, that this is not considered anti-Semitism," he said.
But O'Grady also credited UCI with taking a number of remedial steps to lessen campus friction.
UCI's Gomez cited as examples a campus program by the multifaith organization Abraham's Vision, joint dinners by Jewish and Muslim students, town hall meetings by UCI top leaders with Jewish community groups, and recent campus speeches by such pro-Israel advocates as Alan Dershowitz and Daniel Pipes.
In the planning stage now is a joint trip by Muslim and Jewish students to the Middle East.
The majority of UCI's 27,000 students are of Asian descent, and according to recent estimates there are about 1,000 Jewish students, slightly outnumbered by Muslim and Arab students.
Gomez said he believed that the enrollment of both Jewish and Muslim students was going up and that "Jewish life on campus has never been stronger."
Chapman, ACLU Reach Fraternity Agreement
Students belonging to a historically Jewish fraternity will be allowed to meet and promote their activities on the Chapman University campus next semester thanks to an agreement between school administrators and the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Orange County office.
Sigma Alpha Mu had been banned from campus, and members say they were prohibited from wearing T-shirts bearing their Greek letters after administrators refused to recognize the fledgling group during fraternity expansion in February 2006. The 12-member fraternity and other unrecognized groups will be allowed to rent tables and distribute materials in designated "free speech" areas and to purchase student newspaper ads.
The settlement was prompted by an Oct. 2 letter to Chapman President James L. Doti in which ACLU Orange County Director Hector Villagra claimed that the university's actions violated the students' rights of free speech and association. At the time, Villagra had not ruled out litigation.
"This might help erase the negative stigma that comes with our name," said Sigma Alpha Mu President Pascal de Maria, alluding to a spring 2006 Chapman directive to its 11 fraternities and sororities to report any on-campus activities by the group.
Despite the 2006 ruling, the fraternity receives support from its national organization and has continued to meet off campus, calling itself the Orange County chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu.
Unrecognized groups organizing on campus must prominently disclaim any affiliation with the university in all written or online documents, according to the agreement.
-- Lisa Armony, Contributing Writer
Israeli Consulate, Welcome to MySpace
The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles may be a few years late to the revolution, but it's making connections with a new profile on MySpace.com, the social networking Web site.
Since the profile for "My Israel," age 59, was created in July, little more than two dozen have added the consulate as a friend, although that list does include Madonna (possibly even the Madonna, based on her friend count of nearly 300,000). The consulate officially launched last week, sending out a blast e-mail to drum up interest.
"NOW YOU CAN FIND US (ALSO) ON MYSPACE," stated the note, directing recipients to myspace.com/myisraelconsulate_la.
"The [Foreign] Ministry a while ago understood this is a playing field we need to play in. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook -- you're talking about millions of people," said Gilad Millo, spokesperson for the L.A. consulate. "This is new media versus old media. And being one of the country's that develops most of the software for new media, Israel needs to play in that."
Joining the New York consulate -- http://myspace.com/state_of_Israel -- Los Angeles' profile includes a blog and is being promoted on the consulate's home page, www.israeliconsulatela.org.
-- Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer