NEW YORK – Betim Kaziu and Sulejah Hadzovic grew up across the street from each other in Brooklyn. Hadzovic says they bonded over video games as kids and remained close until discovering a new passion as young men: jihad against fellow Americans.
Their story of friendship, radicalization and betrayal is playing out in federal court, where Kaziu has pleaded not guilty to charges he plotted with Hadzovic to provide support to overseas terrorists. Hadzovic testified against him as the government's star witness at a trial that is entering its second week. Kaziu's attorneys say he was never a danger.
Unlike the cases of Najibullah Zazi, mastermind of a foiled suicide attack on New York City subways, or Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, Kaziu's suspected exploits have gotten little attention, in part because the plot didn't get far. But his case carries many of the same themes of homegrown terrorism.
When asked by prosecutors to explain his motivations, Hadzovic replied, "We were upset at what was happening in places like Abu Gharaib prison and Guantanamo Bay, how they were humiliating and torturing Muslims there. ... It's what ultimately made us want to go and fight in jihad."
He also told jurors he grew to believe that he could no longer live in the United States because "being a Muslim, we're stereotyped and somebody sees somebody with a beard, they automatically label him a terrorist."
For years, U.S. authorities have warned that disaffected young men influenced by the online teachings of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, and other jihadists are a mounting threat as grave as any from established terrorist groups.
The Internet provides "the wandering mind of the conflicted young Muslim or potential convert with direct access to unfiltered radical and extremist ideology," says a 2007 New York Police Department study on the homegrown threat.
The budding terrorists can come from good families and never show up on the law enforcement radar. Many make pilgrimages to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seek martyrdom by fighting American forces or — as with Zazi and Shahzad — by returning to U.S. soil to do harm.
Kaziu, 23, and Hadzovic, 21, are U.S.-born sons of Islamic immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who met in sixth grade.
They began to drift as teenagers, Hadzovic testified.
"I used to cut school and go to the park and smoke cigarettes," he recalled. They later dropped out of high school and embraced strict forms of Islam, he said.
That meant "growing beards and shortening our pants and abstaining from any type of sexual activity with women and, of course, not eating pork, not drinking and not going clubbing," Hadzovic said.
Like al-Awlaki, they were inspired by Omar Hammami. Known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, or "the American," Hammami implored others to follow his path and join the Somalian militant group al-Shabab.
"We like the fact that (Hammami) was offering daughters and crops for those who wanted to get married," Hadzovic testified.
The men soon formed a plan to travel to Egypt to study Islam and eventually make their way to Somalia, which they code-named "the beach," or elsewhere to join a Muslim insurgency, Hadzovic said.
Al-Qaida and other groups "put out a call to arms asking young men around the world to join the fight," Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said in opening statements. "Betim Kaziu answered that call."
Hadzovic said his parents were so against his decision to leave the United States that they tried to hide his passport. He also testified that Kaziu planned to finance his travels in part with a settlement of a lawsuit he filed over breaking his arm on some monkey bars.
The two made the trip to Cairo in 2009. There, Hadzovic said, they attended school, sought to obtain AK-47s and considered whether to take up arms in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine or Somalia.
But Hadzovic began to waver. He recalled hearing President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009 that extended a hand of friendship to Islam and thinking he had made a mistake.
Kaziu, he said, told him: "Don't let (the speech) fool you. It's like throwing sand in your eyes to blind you from the truth."
Hadzovic defied his friend and returned home to make peace with his parents. About three week later, federal authorities approached him and demanded answers about his travels.
He eventually agreed to plead guilty and cooperate against his friend to avoid charges carrying a potential life sentence. He now faces a maximum 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors say that once on his own, Kaziu tried, but failed, to join al-Qaida groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. He eventually made his way to Kosovo.
On the Albanian coast, he "recorded his goodbye, contemplating how he would soon depart for paradise — a reward for those who die a martyr," DuCharme said.
"He was caught before he could complete his mission to kill Americans overseas," the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Henry Steinglass said in his opening statement that the alleged martyr video and another made before Kaziu went overseas of the Statue of Liberty with hands making gestures imitating flames were "basically a joke."
Steinglass argued that most of evidence against Kaziu is widely distributed anti-American propaganda — and that it isn't a crime to look at it.
"You may have very strong reactions to this material, hate-type material is one way to look at it," the lawyer said. "But I am confident that all of you will follow the judge's instructions to focus on the evidence."
Last week, Kaziu, his beard gone, looked on impassively as his former friend testified about an email the defendant sent after the last time they saw each other in Cairo.
"I don't want to see you making any mistakes," Kaziu wrote. "I see that in this situation you are in error. ... Put your faith in Allah."
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