TAMPA — Try as he might, Sami Osmakac couldn’t persuade anyone to help him launch a terrorist attack in Tampa.
He needed only four or five people, he said, and he could shut down the region’s economy by blowing up every major bridge. But he said no one would join him.
In the end, his only partners in crime turned out to be a paid government informant and an undercover FBI agent.
So the “second 9/11” he talked about was not to be.
When he tried to drive off with a fake car bomb in his trunk and visions of eating breakfast the next morning in paradise reaping the rewards of a martyr, he was alone until law enforcement closed in.
And try as they might, Osmakac’s lawyers were unable to convince 12 jurors Osmakac had been entrapped.
After six hours of deliberations, jurors convicted Osmakac of the two federal charges he faced: attempted possession of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered machine gun.
Sentencing is tentatively scheduled for October. He faces the possibility of life in prison on the first charge and 10 years on the second.
“I would say his reaction is disappointment, but I don’t think he’s given up at this point because we talked to him about some of the motions we can file,” said one of his lawyers, Peter Tragos, whose father, George, was the lead defense lawyer in the case.
George Tragos said he plans to begin working on the appeal and file a motion for a new trial.
The prosecution had a different reaction.
“The jury’s verdict in this case represents another victory in our fight against terrorism, which remains our top propriety,” said U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley. “Our success here is due in part to assistance from the local Muslim community, which brought the defendant’s extremist views to the attention of law enforcement.”
But one local Muslim civil rights activist was ambivalent about the verdict and the case.
“I’m not sad that he’s convicted,” said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not celebrating the conviction either. . I’m relieved that Osmak is not in a position to harm this country, while I’m concerned that the government’s tactics turned him into a greater threat than he could have been on his own.”
The defense argued during the trial that Osmakac was entrapped by a paid informant and an undercover FBI agent, who exploited his mental illness, low intelligence and extremist Islamic beliefs.
Osmakac got the money for the weapons from the informant, who had hired Osmakac to work in his store. The weapons - inert explosives and disabled guns - were provided by the undercover agent, who posed as an arms dealer.
Osmakac’s views on Islam were so extreme, he viewed virtually everyone as infidels because they didn’t adhere to his belief that the world should be governed by Sharia law, according to evidence in the trial. That evidence included recordings of Osmakac labeling his own family members, people in local mosques, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as kafir, or infidels. He also singled out Jews and gays as targets for his ire and complained that Muslims in local mosques were preaching democracy.
Shibley says Osmakac is “a troubled individual,” who should have been prosecuted for his attempts at violence before the informant and FBI agent came into the picture, rather than for the multi-tiered, large-scale attack he had set out to launch after he was provided what he thought were weapons.
According to the evidence introduced in court, Osmakac planned to detonate a car bomb outside a busy South Tampa pub and then go to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, where he would use homemade grenades and an automatic AK-47 to take hostages. He planned to demand the release of Muslim prisoners and then, after that was accomplished, feign surrender and detonate a suicide vest as law enforcement moved in.
“There’s no need to enable a Hollywood-style terrorist plot,” Shibley said. “I think that serves nothing but whipping up a sense of fear and paranoia amongst the public, which enables the further curtailing of civil rights.”
“I have more questions than answers,” he said. “Would Osmak have had the ideas and the means to do this crime but for the government informant?”
Shibley worried that the government’s handling of cases like this might backfire by creating hesitation in the community to alert law enforcement.
At the same time, Shibley added, “If somebody came espousing violence, we’d report him again. But now we’d have more concern that instead of the government getting a mentally disturbed individual the help he needs, the government would take advantage to create a terrorist where otherwise there wasn’t one… Perhaps the community needs to take more direct roles in assisting troubled individuals.”
Video and audio recordings played in court showed Osmakac pushing ahead with his plans and becoming increasingly determined, even when given repeated opportunities to back out by the informant and the agent. However, the defense pointed out that the informant, who didn’t testify in the trial, had several meetings and conversations with Osmakac before he agreed to wear a wire.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney told jurors the FBI decided to deploy the undercover agent only after Osmakac tried to buy guns from drug dealers.
What made Osmakac try his attack, she said, was not the FBI and the informant. It was “his viewpoint ...that violent jihad is allowed in pursuit of religion.”
“All the FBI did in this case,” she added, “was give the defendant the opportunity to commit the attack he wanted to.”
Mental illness, she said, “is not an excuse for wanting to murder hundreds of people, wanting to commit a terrorist attack.”