TAMPA — To the prosecution, Sami Osmakac was acting on his extreme religious beliefs when he tried to launch a terrorist attack in Tampa.
Whether or not he was mentally ill, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney, was “not an excuse for wanting to murder hundreds of people.”
But to the defense, Osmakac wanted to fight American and NATO troops overseas, and was manipulated by the FBI and a paid informant to try to attack people on U.S. soil.
“It will be extremely difficult to acquit Sami Osmakac,” defense lawyer George Tragos told the jury. “It will take internal fortitude. It will take doing what’s right.”
Both sides gave their closing arguments Monday in Osmakac’s trial on federal charges of attempted possession of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered machine gun.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations today after hearing legal instructions from U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven.
The final witness to testify Monday was a psychologist called by the prosecution to rebut defense experts who said Osmakac suffered from severe mental illness and was susceptible to inducement by the informant and an undercover FBI agent.
Osmakac was arrested Jan. 7, 2012, in the culmination of an FBI sting in which the undercover agent, posing as an arms dealer, provided him with inert explosives and non-working guns before recording Osmakac’s “martyrdom” video. Osmakac was arrested as he tried to pull away from a Days Inn parking lot with what he thought was a car bomb in his trunk.
According to evidence presented in the trial, Osmakac planned to detonate the bomb outside a busy South Tampa pub, then go to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino where, using guns and grenades, he planned to take hostages and demand the release of Muslim prisoners, including Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakastani woman serving 86 years in federal prison for attempting to murder Americans in Afghanistan.
After the prisoner release was accomplished, he planned to feign surrender and then detonate a suicide vest as law enforcement moved in to arrest him.
Prosecution psychologist Paul Montalbano testified Monday that Osmakac was not delusional but acting on his cultural and religious beliefs when he attempted the attack. Montalbano testified that in March 2011 — six months before the undercover investigation began — Osmakac quit his job in a pharmacy and traveled overseas with the idea of waging jihad against the “oppressors,” his name for American and NATO troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he was unable to enter either country, partly because he didn’t have the proper visa.
Montalbano, who trains other psychologists at Maryland-based Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, testified he has billed the federal government about $41,000 for his work in this case, which included 115 hours of interviews and review. Another mental health expert, who died before the trial, billed the government $20,000 for his work.
Montalbano said he doesn’t see any compelling evidence that Osmakac suffers from any psychotic disorder, although he conceded Osmakac was taking an anti-psychotic medication when he visited him in jail.
“You have to differentiate mental disorders from a cultural belief,” Montalbano said.
Montalbano disputed the conclusions of defense experts who said Osmakac’s martyrdom beliefs were delusional.
“If a belief is espoused by a large number of people, thousands of people,” he said, “it’s no longer idiosyncratic and strange; it’s no longer a symptom of a psychotic disorder.”
Tragos mocked this idea in his closing argument.
“You can be a really sick person, according to Montalbano, but if enough people are sick like you, then you’re not sick anymore,” he said.
“There can be no question,” Tragos argued, that Osmakac “has a severe mental illness” and low intelligence. The FBI “took advantage of him. They overwhelmed him. They created their own intent... He had no chance.”
Tragos said Osmakac didn’t have the money to fund an attack or much knowledge of explosives and weapons until he was funded by the informant and schooled by the undercover agent. “The FBI said anything they wanted to Sami, and Sami believed it,” Tragos said. “He had no idea what was going on and these guys are leading him right along.”
But Sweeney said the evidence in the case is overwhelming that Osmakac wanted to kill Americans on U.S. soil. “What really made the defendant act or not act was his viewpoint ... that violent jihad is allowed in pursuit of religions,” she said.
She said the FBI did the responsible thing and started its undercover investigation after Osmakac tried to buy guns from drug dealers in South St. Petersburg.
Osmakac, the prosecutor said, planned to kill as many people as he could, and even argued American children were fair targets. He wanted to avenge the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born spokesman for al Qaeda. He wanted, she said, “to crush the United States ... teach the United States a lesson.”
“All the FBI did in this case was give the defendant the opportunity to commit the attack if he wanted to,” Sweeney said. The government “cannot wait until the defendant finds a source of weapons someplace else.”