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Midwest logs 2d case linking cellphones to terrorism in week

CARO, Mich. -- The arrest of three men in Caro on charges of supporting terrorism was the Midwest's second case in a week in which terrorism charges were brought against people buying wholesale quantities of cellphones, authorities said.

The three suspects in the Michigan case were stopped by police Friday after they purchased 80 prepaid mobile phones from a Wal-Mart store in Caro, authorities said. A search of their minivan allegedly uncovered about 1,000 cellphones, mostly prepaid TracFones, officers said, and the men were arrested.

At the men's arraignment yesterday, a magistrate set bond at $750,000. They are facing charges of collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and surveillance of a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes. Officials have declined to elaborate on the alleged terrorist scheme.

No pleas were entered for the men at their arraignment, held at 71-B District Court in Caro, about 80 miles north of Detroit.

The arrests in Caro were made three days after two men were arrested in Marietta, Ohio, where police said they piqued suspicions when they acknowledged buying about 600 cellphones in recent months at stores in the southeast section of the state.

In the Michigan case, police said Maruan Awad Muhareb and Louai Abdelhamid Othman, both of Mesquite, Texas, and Adham Abdelhamid Othman, of Dallas, were stopped before dawn Friday not long after they purchased the cellphones.

The suspects were questioned by the local police and the FBI for several hours after their arrests.

Adham and Louai Othman are in their early 20s, and Muhareb is 18. All three were being held in Tuscola County Jail.

Caro Police Sergeant Dale Stevenson said the suspects in the Michigan case told investigators they planned to resell the phones to a wholesaler for profit.

Stevenson also declined to elaborate on how the case relates to terrorism. Telephone messages were left with the Tuscola County prosecutor's office and the FBI, which assisted with the investigation.

Stevenson said the men went to the 24-hour Wal-Mart store early Friday and bought the cellphones despite a store policy limiting customers to three phones per purchase.

A Wal-Mart clerk who thought the purchases were suspicious alerted police.

``They target these stores late, in the morning, hoping to get an inexperienced clerk," he said.

Police stopped the men's van about 1:30 a.m. and found nearly 1,000 phones, along with a laptop computer and a bag of receipts, Stevenson said.

``The cellphones can be used as detonators," Caro Police Chief Ben Page said. He also noted that phone batteries have chemicals that can be used to make methamphetamine.

The men told police they were buying the phones, which cost about $20 and come with a charger, with the intent of taking them out of their packages and selling them to a wholesaler in Texas for about $38 without the charger.

Ohio investigators said they found information about airline flights and airports in the car of the suspects arrested in Marietta.

The Ohio suspects, Ali Houssaiky and Osama Abulhassan, both 20 and from Dearborn, have been charged with two felonies -- money laundering in support of terrorism and soliciting or providing support for acts of terrorism -- and misdemeanor falsification. A preliminary hearing on the felony counts was set for Tuesday.

Defense lawyers said Houssaiky and Abulhassan planned to resell the phones to make money, and the flight information consisted of old papers left in the car by a relative who worked at an airport.

``The only illusory connection advanced by the prosecution to date is based on race and national origin," Abulhassan's family said in a statement. ``This appears to be a typical case of racial profiling and we are confident Osama and Ali will be exonerated."

Prosecutors in Ohio have said the prepaid phones can be used to make hard-to-track international calls and have been linked to use by terrorists.

Wal-Mart has an agreement with cellphone manufacturers to enforce a limit of three cellphones per purchase, said John Simley, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., based in Bentonville, Ark.

``We're providing law enforcement officials with all the information we can to help with the ongoing investigating," Simley said. ``We are not discussing the purchases or other details pertinent to the incidents."

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