Updated: Wednesday, November 29, 2017, 5:48 PM
An Algerian-born terror suspect accused of recruiting Montgomery County’s infamous “Jihad Jane” in a 2009 plot to assassinate a Swedish artist abruptly sought to fire his lawyer in court Wednesday and announced his intention to represent himself.
Ali Charaf Damache, 52, made his demand in what was supposed to be an otherwise routine hearing to schedule his trial next year.
Should he persist with the request, Damache would add yet another layer of complication to the final chapter in what was already the Philadelphia region’s most notable terrorism case. It also is shaping up to be a bellwether test of how the Trump administration plans to handle similar cases moving forward.
The hearing was Damache’s first since authorities extradited him from Spain in July, making him the first accused terrorist brought to the United States to stand trial under the new president’s watch. A federal grand jury in Philadelphia indicted him in 2011 on charges of identity theft and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
As the proceedings got underway in federal court, Judge Petrese B. Tucker asked Damache’s lawyer, Joseph D. Mancano, whether he could be ready for an October trial.
Suddenly, Damache interrupted, stood up, and asked to be heard by the judge.
“I will need another solicitor due to the gravity of the case,” he insisted, citing irreconcilable differences with Mancano. “He promised me a lot in this case, and he didn’t keep his promises.”
Damache told the judge that he had cooperated with prosecutors under advice from Mancano, who – as Damache told it – said he would receive a “short sentence” for doing so.
But judging from his comments Wednesday, any cooperation he gave to authorities appeared to be at an end.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in jail in Ireland and in Europe,” Damache said. “I know what (Mancano) is telling me is not true.”
Tucker initially refused Damache’s request to fire Mancano, pointing out that the case was still in its early stages. The defendant insisted that if she would not appoint him a new lawyer, he would seek to represent himself.
The judge scheduled a January hearing to determine whether Damache still wishes to go it alone in court.
He would not be the first terrorism suspect to do so. Many of those tried in U.S. courts have sought to represent themselves – none more notable than 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, who acted as his own lawyer for a brief period in 2005 before a federal judge stripped him of that right for filing scurrilous motions and making a mockery of the proceedings.
But that case – and others – only highlighted the challenges posed by granting accused terrorists the leeway to represent themselves.
In Damache’s case, as in Moussaoui’s, much of the evidence collected by investigators is classified, raising questions as to how much prosecutors can or have to share before trial with a defendant not eligible for the security clearances.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer A. Williams said Wednesday that investigators have amassed more than a dozen hard drives filled with evidence, conducted countless witness interviews, and carried out several search warrants in the more than six years they have been probing Damache’s case.
So far, civilian courts have devised plans – including calling on back-up attorneys with proper security clearances – to keep such information safe while sharing enough so accused terrorists can put on a defense of their choice.
But Trump administration officials have pointed to such thorny issues as justification for their argument that terror suspects should be tried by military tribunals, not in U.S. courts.
During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to revive and expand the use of the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying in February 2016 he intended to “load it up with some bad dudes.” And his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has argued foreign-born suspects like Damache do not deserve the same legal rights as U.S. citizens.
Despite that rhetoric, the case against Damache has so far played out entirely in a civilian courtroom.
Since he arrived from Spain, he has remained in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. In court Wednesday, Tucker plotted deadlines to put the case before a jury in the city next fall.
Mancano said after the proceedings that he was caught off guard by his client’s request to fight the case on his own.
“It’s his right as a defendant to defend himself,” the lawyer said. “But you’re talking about a man who has never been to the United States before now, and is unfamiliar with our legal system.”
Prosecutors have accused Damache, a resident of Waterford, Ireland, of using jihadist websites between 2008 and 2011 to recruit several Americans for a cell he hoped to establish for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in Algeria.
Known by his online nickname “the Black Flag,” he allegedly sought out light-skinned women and others who did not fit the traditional terrorist profile.
His targets at the time included Colleen LaRose, a blue-eyed, blond-haired Pennsburg woman who used the moniker “Jihad Jane” to post jihadist screeds to YouTube; Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a single mother from Colorado; and Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a former high school honors student from Maryland who became, at the time of his guilty plea, the youngest person convicted in the U.S. on terrorism charges.
According to court filings, Damache eventually persuaded LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez to join him in Ireland with promises that they would launch an attack on Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist whose drawings of Muhammad’s head on the body of a dog offended some Muslims.
The plot, however, fizzled out, and LaRose, Paulin-Ramirez, and Khalid were arrested.
LaRose, 54, remains in federal prison, serving a 10-year term. Paulin-Ramirez, 38, and Khalid, 23, have been released after serving their sentences. All three could become government witnesses if Damache goes to trial.