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Man Claims Terror Ties in Little Rock Shooting

Published: January 21, 2010

MEMPHIS — A Tennessee man accused of killing a soldier outside a Little Rock, Ark., military recruiting station last year has asked a judge to change his plea to guilty, claiming for the first time that he is affiliated with a Yemen-based affiliate of Al Qaeda.

In a letter to the judge presiding over his case, the accused killer, Abdulhakim Muhammad, calls himself a soldier in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and calls the shooting “a Jihadi Attack” in retribution for the killing of Muslims by American troops.

“I wasn’t insane or post traumatic nor was I forced to do this Act,” Mr. Muhammad said in a two-page, hand-printed note in pencil. The attack, which he said did not go as planned, was “justified according to Islamic Laws and the Islamic Religion. Jihad — to fight those who wage war on Islam and Muslims.”

It remains unclear whether Mr. Muhammad really has ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which President Obama has said is behind the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an American plane by a Nigerian man.

But if evidence emerges that his claim is true, it will give the June 1, 2009, shooting in Little Rock new significance at a time when Yemen is being more closely scrutinized as a source of terrorist plots against the United States.

Mr. Muhammad, 24, a Muslim convert from Memphis, spent about 16 months in Yemen starting in the fall of 2007, ostensibly teaching English and learning Arabic. During that time, he married a woman from south Yemen. But he was also imprisoned for several months because he overstayed his visa and was holding a fraudulent Somali passport, the Yemen government said.

Under pressure from the United States government, Yemen deported Mr. Muhammad in late January 2009. But just four months after his return, Mr. Muhammad used a semiautomatic rifle to gun down two soldiers — Pvt. William A. Long and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula — while they were standing outside a military recruiting station in Little Rock, killing Private Long and wounding Private Ezeagwula.

After the shooting, Mr. Muhammad pleaded not guilty, but also took responsibility for the shootings in interviews with The Associated Press. But he did not acknowledge being part of an extremist group and some terrorism experts came to view him as a self-radicalized, lone actor.

In his letter to Herb Wright Jr., a Pulaski County circuit judge, Mr. Muhammad calls himself a member of “Abu Basir’s Army,” an apparent reference to Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, the Yemen group’s leader, who also goes by the name Abu Basir.

Mr. Muhammad’s father, Melvin Bledsoe, a Memphis businessman, said that while he believes his son may have been radicalized in Yemen, he doubts whether he has serious ties to the Qaeda affiliate.

He suggested that Mr. Muhammad might be trying to link himself to Al Qaeda because he believes it will lead to his execution and make him a martyr. Mr. Bledsoe added that he considers his son “unable to process” reality, describing him as “brainwashed.”

“I think a lot of this is make-believe,” Mr. Bledsoe said in an interview.

A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment about Mr. Muhammad, citing an order against public statements in the case by Judge Wright.

Mr. Muhammad’s lawyer, Claiborne Ferguson, said his client had not discussed changing his plea to guilty before he wrote the letter, which is dated Jan. 12. He said the prosecutor would have to agree before the judge would consider the request.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with capital murder, attempted capital murder and 10 counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty on the capital murder charge.

John M. DiPippa, dean of the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, said a judge could only accept a guilty plea in a capital case if he determines that the defendant is mentally competent and not under duress. Mr. Muhammad is in the process of being evaluated by a psychologist, his father said.

Mr. DiPippa said the prosecutor would also have to waive the death penalty, something he may be unwilling to do. Mr. DiPippa added that “the only way it would make sense” for a defendant to plead guilty in a capital case “is to avoid the death penalty.”

In an interview, the prosecutor, Larry Jegley, said it was highly unlikely that he would waive the death penalty, adding, “We’re on” for a trial.

Even before the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Yemen had come under closer scrutiny by American officials, because the soldier charged in the Fort Hood shootings, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, exchanged e-mail messages with a radical cleric in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

This week, a report by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asserted that as many as 36 American Muslims who were prisoners have moved to Yemen in recent months, ostensibly to study Arabic, and that several of them may have linked up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Steve Barnes contributed reporting from Little Rock, Ark.

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