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Chicago man pleads guilty to supporting terror group

By Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — A Chicago cab driver of Pakistani descent pleaded guilty Monday to sending cash to a Kashmiri nationalist group with ties to al-Qaida.

Raja Lahrasib Khan, 58, pleaded guilty to a single count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Federal prosecutors agreed to drop a second count.

Khan had faced a sentence of 30 years to life, but in a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in return for a sentence of five to eight years in prison.

The plea deal was too good to risk a trial for Khan, who became a naturalized citizen in 1988, Durkin told reporters after the hearing.

“I think it’s impossible to get a fair trial on terrorism charges,” said Durkin, a veteran criminal-defense lawyer who has defended several suspects charged with supporting terrorist groups in recent years.

Balding, with a thick white beard, Khan shuffled into U.S. District Judge James Zagel’s courtroom in an orange prison jump suit and leg shackles. His wife, daughter, son and son-in-law joined a handful of reporters in the courtroom gallery. Asked by Zagel if he was in good health, Khan responded, “Not really,” and noted he was taking medication for diabetes and arthritis.

Khan grew up in the Azad Kashmir region of Pakistan and traveled there regularly to visit family since moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, Durkin said. Khan was a staunch supporter of Kashmiri independence and thought he was backing separatist groups that were engaged in armed conflict with India in the region, the scene of violent border disputes for decades.

According to his plea agreement, during one visit in Pakistan in the mid-2000s, Khan was contacted by backers of llyas Kashmiri, a leader of the Kashmir independence movement who later was charged in Chicago in connection with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India’s largest city. Kashmiri remains a fugitive.

In a 2008 meeting, Kashmiri told Khan in addition to attacks against India he was working with al-Qaida and that Osama bin Laden was “alive, healthy and giving the orders,” according to the plea agreement. Khan gave Kashmiri $200 to $250 in Pakistani rupees during that meeting and the next year wired another $300 intended for Kashmiri, prosecutors said.

While Khan intended the money to be used to support attacks against India, he also knew that Kashmiri was working with al-Qaida, prosecutors said. But Durkin said Khan’s knowledge of Kashmiri’s ties to al-Qaida was minimal and that investigators knew Khan was not a threat to Americans in the U.S. or abroad.

In March 2010, Khan agreed to pass to Kashmiri $1,000 given to him by an undercover agent posing as someone who supported al-Qaida and wanted the money to train operatives to conduct military-style attacks on U.S. forces, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said they had recordings of Khan discussing his plans on the phone and had installed bugs in Khan’s cab.

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