The case of Earnest James Ujaama, a prolific cooperating witness, illustrates the irony of a system that grants leniency to those with information to trade.
Since the 9/11 attacks, at least 30 people convicted of international terrorism-related offenses have become informants and/or cooperating witnesses in exchange for leniency in sentencing, according to an analysis by The Intercept of federal terrorism prosecutions.
Using the threat of criminal prosecution to encourage someone to cooperate is a well-worn tactic that long predates the war on terror. But this tactic has been used to great effect by federal prosecutors in the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. There’s a cruel irony in this system. The misguided men, and sometimes women, who are caught up in counterterrorism stings — where an undercover agent or informant encourages or facilitates plans for an attack — are often sentenced to decades in prison because they have no information to trade. Members of the so-called Liberty City Seven, a group of Miami men who discussed a bomb plot with an undercover informant posing as an Al Qaeda operative, spent six to 13 years behind bars; they couldn’t become cooperating witnesses, because they didn’t know any real terrorists. But the more dangerous a defendant, or the more extensive his contacts with terrorists, the more likely he can leverage his connections for leniency.
One early informant was Mohammed Junaid Babar, an Al Qaeda operative who provided material support to efforts against U.S. forces in Pakistan. In exchange for more than six years of cooperation, Babar received a sentence of time served and 10 years of supervised release. As part of his supervised release, Babar was required to continue to cooperate with the government. His whereabouts have never been disclosed publicly, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has no public record of Babar having entered custody at any point during his cooperation.
The case of Najibullah Zazi offers another example. Zazi trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and then mixed beauty-supply chemicals for backpack bombs in a motel outside Denver. He was arrested in September 2009, before he could drive to New York and place those bombs on the subway. Zazi, whose sentence has been pending since he pleaded guilty in February 2010, is currently working for the government as a cooperating witness.
Some of the government’s cooperating witnesses have been plucked from far-flung battlefields. Bryant Neal Vinas, who went by the name Bashir al-Ameriki, was captured in Pakistan. After admitting that he fired rockets on a U.S. military base in September 2008, Vinas turned informant. He provided information about a plot to blow up a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in New York’s Penn Station as well as information about Belgian and French men who attended the same training camp he did. Vinas pleaded guilty in January 2009 to an indictment charging him with, among other offenses, conspiracy to kill Americans and material support for terrorists. His sentence has been pending since then, and there is no record of him ever being turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, suggesting he is in a witness security program.
One of the most colorful and revealing cases of a terrorism defendant-turned-cooperator is that of Earnest James Ujaama, perhaps the most prolific cooperating witness in the war on terror. A would-be entrepreneur with an explosive temper and a penchant for running minor scams, Ujaama became a close associate of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, whom a senior Justice Department official once called “an unrepentant all-purpose terrorist.” But while Abu Hamza is now serving a life prison sentence, Ujaama is free, living in idyllic Berkeley, California, collecting approximately $2,000 per month from the federal government, at least until recently, and looking to tell his story to a receptive audience.
I first heard from Ujaama on November 12, 2015, when he sent me an email. “I’m looking to tell the story of a case that I think you will be most interested in,” he wrote. Later that day, in another email, Ujaama disclosed the primary condition of his cooperation. He wanted me to write a book with him about his life. “I’ve listened to you speak,” he wrote. “I’ve watched your presentation. I like your work.”
In a series of phone and email conversations, Ujaama described how he also wanted compensation for his story. “I don’t pay for access to people,” I told Ujaama.
This sort of back-and-forth continued for months. Sometimes I initiated contact, because I was intrigued by Ujaama’s story. Sometimes he reached out to me, for reasons that were not always clear. Our exchanges always were short-lived. Ujaama is a chameleon-like man who has been many things: entrepreneur, author, college student, religious scholar, newsletter publisher, aspiring movie producer, website designer, even a mule carrying cash into Afghanistan. Now, it seemed, he was attempting to fashion a new career as a terrorism expert, but at his core, the slender 51-year-old with close-cropped hair and braces on his teeth is a hustler — someone who, in the words of one federal judge, always plays “fast and loose.”
During his 13-year cooperation as a witness for the government, Ujaama has testified in two terrorism trials — including that of Abu Hamza, who was also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa — and would have testified in a third had the defendant not pleaded guilty. In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan called Ujaama’s cooperation with the government “extraordinary.”
Finally, in October 2016, Ujaama wrote me once again. He was irritated by a 60 Minutes story about Mary Quin, a New Zealander who was kidnapped in Yemen by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and portrayed by CBS News as the U.S. Department of Justice’s star witness in Abu Hamza’s trial. This was outrageous to Ujaama, because in his view, he was the star witness against the religious cleric with connections to Al Qaeda. “You should come see me. I’m in the Bay Area until November,” Ujaama wrote. We agreed to meet the following month.
Born in Denver as James Earnest Thompson, Ujaama moved to Seattle as a boy. “I grew up under the Black Panthers,” he said in court testimony. By most accounts he was whip-smart, driven, and eager to make a mark on the world.
But Ujaama also had a fiery disposition. Once, when his girlfriend called police and reported that he had a gun, Ujaama got into a scuffle with a cop and broke the officer’s watch. Enacting revenge on his girlfriend for the incident, Ujaama poured a five-pound bag of sugar into her car’s gasoline tank.
In the mid-1980s, Ujaama moved to Pelican, Alaska, to take a job at a seafood company, where he said he struggled with a racist culture there. “I just got tired of being called nigger,” he recalled. One day, frustrated by the racism, Ujaama grabbed a .375 Winchester rifle and shot out the window of the housing unit where he was staying. He went to jail for the incident.
By the early 1990s, he’d returned to Seattle and joined the personal computer industry. Ujaama was a partner in Olympic Computers, which sold IBM clones at wholesale. But the company didn’t last; Ujaama began a scam, telling customers to send him checks so that he would get the money rather than his partner. In all, Ujaama raked in about $10,000 from the ploy.
Then Ujaama switched to writing books, positioning himself as a motivational speaker and community activist. One book, “The Young People’s Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs,” encouraged young black men to become entrepreneurs. “When a person lacks knowledge and vision,” Ujaama wrote in the foreword, “that person becomes a soldier in the wrong war, an enemy to others and to themselves.”
Ujaama followed these efforts with a work of fiction, “Coming Up,” a semi-autobiographical story about two friends — one becomes a drug dealer, the other a successful businessman. Ujaama moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of turning “Coming Up” into a movie. Although he claimed to have received a commitment for half of the money to produce the film adaptation, the promised funds were contingent on Ujaama raising the second half from other sources, which he couldn’t do. It was a flop, like most of Ujaama’s business ventures.
Despite characterizing himself as an entrepreneur, Ujaama has never run a successful business, at least not according to any measure the IRS would endorse. He has never paid taxes, and in some years did not file tax returns at all. “The understanding I had was that I did not owe taxes,” he said.
At a low point after failing to turn his book into a movie, Ujaama returned to Seattle and converted to Islam in late 1996. Ujaama devoted himself to Islam and moved to England to study under Abdullah El-Faisal, a Jamaican-born cleric who was imam of the Brixton Mosque in South London. Ujaama became something of an apostle for El-Faisal, traveling back and forth from London to Seattle, where he’d sell tapes of El-Faisal’s sermons. Yet rather than providing a portion of the sales to El-Faisal, Ujaama pocketed the proceeds.
While in London, Ujaama married a Muslim woman from Somalia, and they had a child. El-Faisal had taught Ujaama that jihad training was a Muslim’s obligation, so in late 1998, Ujaama traveled to Afghanistan for training. “I was looking to learn physical jihad training, which would include hand-to-hand combat, how to use weaponry, and live as a Muslim,” Ujaama explained later in court testimony. He made his way to a training camp run by a conservative Muslim missionary group. The camp used an aging Soviet-built military barracks, a soccer field, a large artillery gun, and some broken-down tanks. Ujaama received weapons training and learned how to recite the Quran. But he wasn’t much of a militant. One night, while in the bathroom, Ujaama accidentally fired his rifle. He soon fell ill and left the camp after just two weeks.
Ujaama returned to London and continued his studies under El-Faisal. At the time, El-Faisal was badmouthing Abu Hamza, the religious leader in London who would later be prosecuted in New York. Some of El-Faisal’s students asked Ujaama to meet with Abu Hamza and help mediate the dispute.
Abu Hamza commanded a mysterious aura because, well, he looked like a James Bond villain. He had one eye and was missing both of his hands, forcing him to use a prosthetic hook. Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza studied civil engineering before coming to the United Kingdom in 1979. Various stories have circulated about how Abu Hamza sustained his injuries, including one that alleged his hands were chopped off after he was caught stealing in Saudi Arabia. In truth, according to Abu Hamza, he lost his hands and an eye during an explosives accident while assisting the Pakistani military in a road-building project.
Ujaama recalled being “very impressed with Sheikh Abu Hamza” from that initial meeting. After listening to Abu Hamza’s taped lectures, Ujaama turned his back on El-Faisal. “I decided that he wasn’t a good person to follow,” Ujaama said. His spurned mentor began telling people that Ujaama had stolen money.
But it didn’t matter. Ujaama had his new teacher, Abu Hamza, who had a growing international following through the website of his organization, Supporters of Sharia. When Ujaama decided to return to the United States in 1999, Abu Hamza gave him about a dozen tapes of his lectures. The tapes bore Supporters of Sharia’s logo — a shackled man behind bars reaching out of the cell with a Quran in hand. The lectures were “very angry, but serious,” according to Ujaama, who distributed copies in Seattle’s Muslim community. As he did with El-Faisal’s tapes, Ujaama pocketed the profits.
It was during this return trip to Seattle that Ujaama heard about a ranch in southern Oregon. The entrepreneur in Ujaama saw an opportunity: He could build a training camp for Muslims and advertise it to Abu Hamza’s followers. Ujaama sent a fax to Abu Hamza describing his idea, but he also exaggerated the progress he’d made in turning the ranch into a training camp. He claimed he had secured weapons and recruits and had already started to build structures. He asked Abu Hamza to send two men from London to assist him.
The men Abu Hamza sent were Oussama Kassir, a Lebanese national and Swedish citizen who claimed to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and Haroon Aswat, a slender British man. The brawny Kassir was to be a physical trainer at the camp, while the studious Aswat would act as a religious and Arabic tutor there. They flew to New York on November 26, 1999, and then took a Greyhound bus across the country to Seattle.
After they arrived, Ujaama drove the two men for eight hours to southern Oregon, where Ujaama showed them the ranch. Instead of having the makings of a training camp, it was desolate. There were no stockpiles of weapons. There were no recruits. The only structures were dilapidated trailers.
Ujaama, true to his roots, had been running a hustle. He just needed Abu Hamza’s stamp of approval and support, and he figured if he could get a couple of Abu Hamza’s guys on site, he could line up investments to get the weapons he claimed he already had and start the construction he said was already underway.
But Kassir, realizing that Ujaama had lied about the camp, became angry. “He got in my face and began to point his finger at me,” Ujaama later testified.
His training camp scheme dashed following the argument with Kassir, Ujaama fled back to Seattle, leaving behind the two men Abu Hamza had sent. Ujaama never returned to the ranch.
Instead, Ujaama moved back to London in the spring of 2000 and returned to his studies under Abu Hamza. If the religious cleric was irritated by Ujaama’s overselling of the training camp, or his dispute with Kassir, he didn’t seem to show it. He took in Ujaama as a close aide, and Ujaama began to work on the Supporters of Sharia website, expanding the English-language portion in order to reach non-Arabic speakers.
Eventually Abu Hamza had a mission for Ujaama. He asked him to travel to Afghanistan to deliver money and escort a member of the London mosque, a Ugandan-born British man named Feroz Abbasi. Abu Hamza gave Ujaama a letter addressed to the foreign minister of the Taliban government to guarantee safe passage into Afghanistan.
Ujaama and Abbasi purchased plane tickets and traveled to Pakistan. After checking into a hotel in Quetta, Ujaama snuck away without telling Abbasi and headed to the Taliban embassy. “I decided that because he would interfere with what I was doing,” Ujaama said. At the embassy, Ujaama handed the Taliban representative the letter from Abu Hamza.
The Taliban escorted Ujaama in an SUV across the border and to the Kandahar compound of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who ran a training camp in Afghanistan. Following Abu Hamza’s instruction, he gave al-Libi an envelope containing 500 British pounds. Ujaama then traveled to Khost to find a girls’ school to deliver another envelope of money, but wasn’t able to locate it. Instead, he encountered a man who wanted to send Ujaama to the front lines in the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance. Ujaama called Abu Hamza in London to intercede. “I’m not here for that purpose,” he said.
The call prevented Ujaama’s military conscription, but Abu Hamza asked him about Abbasi. “I left him behind,” Ujaama said. Angry, Abu Hamza demanded that Ujaama go back to Pakistan and bring Abbasi to Afghanistan. Ujaama told Abu Hamza that he would collect Abbasi, even though he had no intention of doing so.
Back at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, Ujaama continued to assist Abu Hamza and work on the Supporters of Sharia website. In early September 2001, Ujaama agreed to travel once more to Afghanistan to deliver money.
On September 11, 2001, on his way to Afghanistan, Ujaama was awoken to the Pakistani military police knocking on his hotel door. “They asked me if I needed protection,” Ujaama recalled. He learned that hijacked airplanes had been turned into weapons in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Abu Hamza wanted Ujaama to continue into Afghanistan and deliver the money, but Ujaama refused. The U.S. military had begun bombing the country. Instead, Ujaama made his way to the United States, with 1,000 pounds of Abu Hamza’s cash in hand.
Ujaama was arrested in July 2002 at his grandmother’s former home in Denver, Colorado. “The government is conducting a witch hunt,” Ujaama said in a public statement at the time. The federal government first held Ujaama on a material witness warrant, then indicted him on material support charges related to the supposed training camp in Oregon.
Though he seemed destined for a lengthy prison sentence, Ujaama’s life was about to take a new turn.
After his arrest, Ujaama followed a path similar to those of other post-9/11 terrorism defendants. As part of a plea deal, Ujaama admitted that he conspired to aid the Taliban. In exchange for a sentence of two years in prison, Ujaama agreed to be a witness in the U.S. government’s prosecutions of Abu Hamza and the two other men who collaborated with Ujaama on the purported training camp in Oregon — Oussama Kassir and Haroon Aswat. In 2004, prosecutors in Manhattan charged Abu Hamza, Kassir, and Aswat with terrorism-related charges.
When they were indicted, Abu Hamza was in the United Kingdom, Kassir in the Czech Republic, and Aswat in Zambia. All three fought extradition to the United States, creating a prolonged legal battle that meant Ujaama would wait years to fulfill his obligation to testify in their cases.
By December 2006, Ujaama grew impatient and frustrated by what he viewed as the government forcing him to testify against Abu Hamza. He fled to Belize, where he hoped he could be reunited with his wife and child, but he was arrested by local authorities. Since he violated his plea deal in Washington, federal prosecutors indicted Ujaama again in Manhattan, this time with additional charges. As part of a second cooperating agreement, Ujaama pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts, including a conspiracy to build the training camp in Oregon. He served an additional four years in prison.
Ujaama testified against Kassir in 2009, helping the government to win a conviction and ensuring that the man he’d argued with on the ranch received a sentence of life in prison.
Five years after Kassir’s trial, federal prosecutors finally put Abu Hamza on trial in Manhattan. Ujaama testified for four days in the spring of 2014, describing in detail how he helped his former mentor with the Supporters of Sharia website and newsletter, how he asked him to send two men to the ranch in Oregon, and how he delivered money to Afghanistan.
Abu Hamza was convicted on May 19, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison. He is reportedly in solitary confinement and without his prosthetic limbs.
Haroon Aswat pleaded guilty in March 2015 following the successful convictions of Kassir and Abu Hamza. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.
On October 23, 2015, Ujaama was sentenced, for the final time, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. “I wish I would have never gotten involved with Abu Hamza,” Ujaama said at his sentencing. “And I think he’s a bad man.”
Judge Katherine B. Forrest said she did not believe Ujaama posed a terrorist threat. If he posed any threat to society, she said, it was “petty fraud or something like that.” She sentenced Ujaama to time served, and in recognition of Ujaama’s years of cooperation with the government, she declined to give him any term of supervised release.
For the first time since 2002, Ujaama was free.
Following my year of on-and-off exchanges with Ujaama, we met for the first time in Berkeley in December 2016. I agreed to one condition: We’d keep the first day off the record, and then once we’d gotten acquainted, our conversations thereafter would be on the record.
But after speaking with me over coffee and lunch in Berkeley, Ujaama still wasn’t willing to participate in an interview for an article he couldn’t control. After several hours, I told him it was now his choice. I walked toward the Berkeley BART station. Ujaama followed. We chatted for another hour, standing in the train station lobby. I finally told him that if he wanted to be interviewed, he could come see me in San Francisco the next day.
That evening, I emailed Ujaama to give him one last chance to talk, and to let him know I’d be writing about him, regardless of his cooperation.
“Have a safe return home, bro,” was his only reply.
The next week, I sent Ujaama a list of questions for this story. “I’m in the middle of a research project for my doctoral studies and am very busy,” he wrote. He didn’t respond to any of the questions.
Ujaama doesn’t want to be seen as just another snitch in the ongoing war on terror. He clings to a personal brand of exceptionalism that paints him as both a victim of overzealous prosecution and a star actor on the larger stage of U.S. terrorism prosecutions. And while he insists he wants to spark reform, his case best illustrates the injustice of a system that gives light sentences to those who trade terrorist contacts and cooperation for leniency, while sending those with no such connections to prison for decades.
In the meantime, during my discussions with Ujaama, his Wikipedia entry was being updated almost daily with granular detail about his life.
The entry at one point refers directly to the editor responsible for the frequent updates: “This author is in possession of all court transcripts, sentencing memorandums, and primary documents related to United States vs. Earnest James Ujaama,” the entry read, noting that many of the documents are filed under seal. “Most of what is found on the Internet is piece-meal journalism, speculation or theory, and is outdated,” the entry continued.
I sent Ujaama one final question. “Are you the one writing your Wikipedia entry?” I asked. Ujaama never responded.
The U.S. government has prosecuted more than 800 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never committed an act of violence.