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Undercover FBI agent offers key testimony in terrorism bomb plot after judge clears courtroom for sentencing

Adel Daoud (U.S. Marshals Service)

Hillside teenager Adel Daoud first met with the purported terrorist in a park in the western suburb of Villa Park in July 2012.

Speaking rapidly and in a high-pitched tone, Daoud espoused his desire to wage violent jihad, peppering his conversation with typical teenage words like “dude” and “man” as he explained the “hypocrisy” of America and listed the “nonbelievers” he felt it was fair game to kill.

“Our blood is so cheap you know?” Daoud told the man, who was actually an undercover FBI agent posing as a jihadi fighter. “Their blood is very valuable. But our blood is cheap.”

Near the end of the meeting, the agent asked Daoud to “write down” his ideas for an attack in Chicago. Two months later, Daoud, 18, was arrested in a Loop alley after pressing the detonator on what he thought was a 1,000-pound car bomb he’d parked outside the crowded Cactus Bar & Grill in the Loop.

The muffled recording of the two-hour meeting was played for the first time Tuesday in a federal courtroom without any spectators or reporters present as Daoud’s unusual sentencing hearing on terrorism and other charges entered a second day.

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U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman ordered deputy U.S. marshals to clear her 14th-floor courtroom Tuesday in advance of the agent’s testimony — a rare move that brought objections by Daoud’s attorneys as well as lawyers for the Chicago Tribune.

Coleman said the safety of the agent, who still works undercover, trumped the public’s right to access. She also said she has been more than accommodating to the news media, setting up an overflow courtroom with an audio linkup for reporters to hear the agent’s testimony, although the video is aimed away from the witness stand.

The agent’s undercover work was the linchpin of the case and included constructing the inert bomb for Daoud using bags of fertilizer and containers of gasoline packed into a Jeep and rigged to a detonator. After Daoud was arrested, he was captured in conversations with a jailhouse snitch attempting to arrange the agent’s murder.

“That alone causes the court concern about his safety,” the judge said Tuesday.

In objecting to booting the public from the courtroom, Daoud’s attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin, said the public had a right to a full airing of the government’s investigation of Daoud, who Durkin has argued was a naive and “misguided” teen entrapped as part of the overzealous war on terror.

“It’s just becoming a default now in terrorism cases to grant the government whatever they want,” Durkin said.

When the agent’s long-anticipated testimony finally began, prosecutors referred to him not by his real name but by “Mudafer,” the name he used when dealing with Daoud.

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Testifying in a gruff voice, the agent said he was introduced to Daoud in July 2012 as the cousin of a man who had been talking to Daoud online about jihad. The agent told Daoud he was a mujahed who fought in Afghanistan and belonged to a terrorist cell with loyalties to al-Qaida.

In their first meeting near a mosque in Villa Park, Daoud did “90 percent” of the talking, the agent said. Portions of the audio-recorded conversation played in court captured Daoud giggling and speaking excitedly as he identified himself as a “good terrorist.”

In often-rambling monologues, Daoud brought up the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the killing of Jewish men, women and children. He laughed at seemingly odd times, particularly when talking about the timidness of some in the Islamic community about fighting against oppression.

“Like, woooow man! Hellooo! Are you serious right now?” Daoud exclaimed at one point on the recording.

Near the end of the conversation, the agent told Daoud that his group was interested in doing “something in Chicago” because of fewer security risks than in New York.

Daoud expressed interest but also seemed to have little grasp of how such an attack could be orchestrated. At one point, Daoud brought up the idea of using “flying cars” to bomb a location, saying he was sure they existed and were “less expensive than a plane.”

“You could get 20 of those. It would be much cheaper than getting, like, five airplanes,” Daoud said.

The agent threw cold water on the idea, saying that it would be “a thing that would take years and years to plan” and cost a lot of money.

The conversation ended with the agent suggesting Daoud write his ideas on targets and methods down in a notepad and give them to him at their next meeting.

Asked why he suggested that to Daoud, the agent testified it was important that Daoud had time to “cool off” and potentially walk away from the idea of an attack. The FBI also wanted any specific plan for an attack to be Daoud’s idea, the agent said.

“He would be doing it away from me with no pressure from me,” the agent testified. “He would actually contemplate his ideas, think about them, write them down.”

At their next meeting on Aug. 12, 2012, Daoud brought his list scribbled on lined notebook paper. The potential targets on the list — displayed in court — included Navy Pier, the Music Box theater in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a busy movie theater in Streeterville and a handful of popular nightspots on the North Side.

Also on the list was the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, several suburban masonic halls as well as U.S. military and government offices.

During cross-examination, Durkin blasted the agent’s assertion that he never tried to guide Daoud into any attack plot. Durkin noted that the agent was 20 years older than Daoud and with far more experience. Daoud seemed at a loss as to how car bombs worked, at one point asking the agent whether he would have to be inside the vehicle when it exploded.

At one point in their conversation, Daoud told the agent his desires to carry out a terrorist attack were just “fantasies,” Durkin pointed out in his questioning. The agent acknowledged that he responded by saying his “ideas are good.”

Durkin also questioned the agent’s testimony that Daoud could’ve carried out the bombing plot without the assistance of the FBI.

“Are you seriously telling this court and anybody else who wants to listen that Mr. Daoud could have walked away from you and built a 1,000-pound car bomb?” Durkin asked.

“He’d already said he’d researched it,” the agent said. “It’s not that far-fetched. … Building a bomb is not as difficult as you might think.”

Daoud, now 25, was allowed to enter his guilty plea to terrorism charges without actually admitting he did anything wrong — an unusual arrangement known in federal court as an Alford plea. He also pleaded guilty in the same fashion to separate indictments accusing him of soliciting the murder of the undercover FBI agent and attacking a fellow inmate with a jailhouse shank.

As a result, the sentencing hearing before Coleman has played out more like a mini-trial.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Daoud. Prosecutors are seeking a 40-year prison sentence followed by a lifetime of court supervision.

Daoud’s attorneys, meanwhile, want the Hillside native, who has been incarcerated since his arrest more than 6 ½ years ago, to be released in time to enroll in college in the fall of 2021.

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© 2019 the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.