Witness in terrorism case sentenced to probation

His cooperation aided FBI probe

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / February 5, 2010

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A crucial witness in an FBI probe that led to terrorism charges against two Greater Boston men was rewarded for his cooperation yesterday with a sentence of probation for his own crime.

Bilaal McCloud, 54, of Roxbury, who began cooperating with the FBI in 2005 after he was indicted on charges of being a felon in possession of a semiautomatic pistol and ammunition, told a federal judge, “I felt it was my duty to assist in that way.’’

During the sentencing hearing in US District Court in Boston, prosecutors said McCloud “provided singular and very important information’’ in a significant case, but did not publicly disclose which case it was.

Two people familiar with the inquiry that led to the terrorism indictment in November of Tarek Mehanna, 27, of Sudbury, and Ahmad Abousamra, 28, a fugitive formerly of Mansfield, said McCloud is one of the unnamed cooperating witnesses in that case.

Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Auerhahn told the judge that McCloud was “the first significant cooperator,’’ who began assisting investigators at a critical time “when our ability to use other evidence was uncertain.’’

He said the judge is aware of the extent of McCloud’s cooperation.

Under a deal struck in October 2005, McCloud pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of ammunition, and the government dropped the more serious count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

McCloud was initially a reluctant witness, Auerhahn said, but as the investigation went on, he “became more active in his assistance to the government’’ and even traveled outside Massachusetts to secretly aid the investigation.

US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock revealed that last year McCloud apparently told one or more of the targets of the probe that they were being investigated. The judge questioned prosecutors about whether that breach compromised the investigation.

“It was at a time he knew his cooperation was coming to an end,’’ Auerhahn said. “Although it was not something he should have done, it did not have a negative impact on the investigation.’’

McCloud’s attorney, James E. Small Jr. of Roxbury, said that McCloud’s cooperation was not just to get out of his own legal predicament, but “something he was doing for society, his children, family, and the community.’’

The judge, adopting a recommendation from prosecutors, sentenced McCloud to three years probation and ordered him to undergo random drug testing and to attend programs for anger management and drug treatment. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence ranging from 27 months to 33 months in prison on the ammunition charge.

Woodlock said that McCloud’s life has been on a “positive trajectory’’ since he accepted responsibility for his crime and began cooperating.

“My view is that there has been rehabilitation here,’’ Woodlock said. “I am of the view that incarceration would not be a benefit. . . . It would be counterproductive.’’

When McCloud was arrested in January 2005 on the federal charges, he was facing the possibility of a lengthy prison term because he was a felon. State records indicate he had prior drug convictions, including one in 1987 for cocaine trafficking that resulted in a state prison sentence of 12 to 15 years.

McCloud converted to Islam while in state prison and befriended Mehanna and Abousamra while attending mosques in Greater Boston, according to one of the people familiar with the investigation.

On their way out of the courtroom yesterday, McCloud and his lawyer both declined to comment on the case.

Mehanna, who earned a doctorate two years ago from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, was first arrested in November 2008 on a charge that he lied to the FBI two years earlier during a terrorism investigation.

He and Abousamra were indicted last November on more serious charges of providing and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists since 2001, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, and making false statements to law enforcement.

The indictment alleges that the pair tried to join a terrorist training camp overseas in 2002 and 2004, but could not find one that would take them. Prosecutors allege that Mehanna, an Internet blogger, provided support to terrorists by translating Al Qaeda documents from Arabic to English and posting them on websites that advocate jihad in an effort to radicalize others and incite violence.

FBI affidavits filed in court allege that Mehanna and Abousamra plotted to attack an American shopping mall and assassinate two US government officials, but the pair are not formally charged with those crimes.

Abousamra, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston with a degree in computer science, left the country in 2006 and is believed to be in Syria, court filings say.