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New Haven (AP) - Two terrorism suspects charged with operating websites that sought to raise cash, recruit fighters and obtain equipment for terrorists in Afghanistan and Chechnya face a Connecticut court hearing today following their extradition from Britain.
Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan are to stand trial in Connecticut, where an Internet service provider was allegedly used to host one of the websites.
The two were among five suspects who were flown to the U.S. late Friday after Britain's High Court ruled that they had exhausted their appeals after lengthy court fights.
A hearing was scheduled for Ahmad and Ahsan in U.S. District Court in New Haven this morning, U.S. Marshal Joseph Faughnan said Friday. Ahmad has been held without trial for eight years in a British prison.
Ahsan, 33, was arrested at his home in London in 2006 on the federal indictment charging him with conspiracy to support terrorists and conspiracy to kill or injure people abroad. Ahmad, a 36-year-old computer specialist, was indicted in 2004 on charges of supporting terrorism, conspiring to kill people in a foreign country and laundering money.
If convicted, the men could face life sentences.
Both are accused of running several websites, including Azzam.com that investigators say was used to recruit members for the al-Qaida network, Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime and Chechen rebels. The websites sought equipment such as gas masks and recovered emails discussed night vision goggles for terrorists, authorities said.
Both men also possessed a classified document discussing a U.S. Navy battle group's movements and vulnerability to attack, authorities said.
A former Navy sailor, Hassan Abu-Jihaad, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2009 for leaking the details about the battle group to the website. The group was never attacked.
Ahmad's American attorney, Joshua Dratel, declined comment except to say the extradition was only the beginning of the process. Ahmad has said he did not condone terrorism.
Ahsan's attorney, Richard Reeve, did not return phone calls.
The investigation began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and became one of the first to target online terrorism financiers. Officials believe they disrupted a network that recruited and financed terrorists, outfitted them with equipment and dispatched them to fight in countries such as Afghanistan.
Authorities said that in 1998, Ahmad bought 100 camouflage suits from a New York company. In 2000, the men helped coordinate the shipment of gas masks to the Taliban, authorities said.
U.S. prosecutors said the men helped terrorists find temporary residence in London and shuttled them into Afghanistan and Chechnya to participate in "jihad."
Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann testified for the government at Abu-Jihaad's trial that the websites were the premier English-language mouthpiece of terrorists.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Azzam Publications was the most high-profile website offering credible, firsthand information from jihadi militant groups across the Muslim world, Kohlmann said recently. After 9/11, Azzam published a lengthy homage to Al-Qaida's suicide hijackers, he said.
Azzam Publications remains the only such organization in the West to receive a direct, public endorsement from a senior mujahideen commander in Chechnya, Kohlmann said.
"English-language jihadi propaganda that was produced by Azzam Publications now more than a decade ago continues to regularly resurface in headline-grabbing homegrown terrorism cases in the U.S.," Kohlmann said in an email. "Its propaganda releases are still considered to be foundational classics and have had an impressive impact in contributing to the radicalization of English-speaking would-be jihadi recruits."
In an interview that took place after the BBC won a legal battle to speak with him, he insisted he did not condone terrorism and urged authorities to put him on trial in the U.K. Ahmad acknowledged he had visited Bosnia several times during the 1990s, and had been involved in the conflict there.