By AMANDA GREENE Wilmington Faith and Values
A federal judge in Wilmington, N.C., found probable cause for a criminal trial and denied bond Friday for a Raleigh Muslim woman who was arrested in late January for her alleged involvement in a murder for hire beheading plot.
At the preliminary hearing for 46-year-old Nevine Aly Elshiekh, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr. heard testimony from a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and Elshiekh's 80-year-old father.
Elshiekh, a special education teacher at a Montessori school in Morrisville, is charged with using interstate facilities for murder for hire. Federal prosecutors say FBI investigators tracked Elshiekh allegedly carrying messages to and from a convicted terrorist, Hysen Sherifi, about witnesses from his trial last year whom he wanted “killed and beheaded.” Federal prosecutors also say Elshiekh allegedly provided part of the money for the first hit, though no one was killed.
Though Jones said Elshiekh did not pose a danger to her community, he ruled that she could pose a flight risk because of her overseas family ties and because her passport is missing. Her attorney, Charles Swift, said he plans to appeal the judge's decision.
Elshiekh, who is a U.S. citizen and a longtime Raleigh resident, does not have a criminal record.
On Jan. 27, Jones also denied bond for another defendant in the alleged plot, Shkumbin Sherifi, Hysen Sherifi's younger brother. He was arrested in Wilmington after leaving a visit with his brother in the New Hanover County Jail.
“The defendant, herself, admitted, post-Miranda (after she was arrested), that the plot was to kill witnesses,” the judge said. “She paid $750 to a confidential source and advised that Shkumbin Sherifi would provide the rest.”
According to testimony from FBI agent Julia Hanish, the alleged targets of the plot were three confidential witnesses in the terrorism case of Hysen Sherifi, a Raleigh man who was convicted along with two other Raleigh men in October 2011 for a plot to attack the U.S. Marine base at Quantico, Va. Hanish also testified that when Shkumbin Sherifi was arrested in January, he was allegedly carrying faked photos the FBI supplied to prove to Hysen Sherifi that the first beheading had been carried out.
“Hysen Sherifi was the leader. She assisted,” Hanish said of Elshiekh's alleged role in the plot. Hanish said the FBI had audio recordings of Elshiekh during her Wilmington visits with Hysen Sherifi, emails and letters from Elshiekh linked to the plot.
Aly Elshiekh, her father, testified about his belief in the U.S. justice system, asking the court to release his daughter to his custody until her trial.
“I trust the system 100 percent, 110 percent,” he said. “If she did wrong, she will be judged. If she was conned, I hope the court will see that. I am pretty sure she will see a fair day in court.”
Her defense attorneys said within a week of her arrest, they received 50 letters from fellow teachers, Rhodes scholars and her former students attesting to Elshiekh's character.
“She is a teacher of autistic children. Her compassion knows no bounds,” said Elshiekh's defense attorney, Linda Moreno, talking to reporters after the hearing. Moreno also said Elshiekh volunteered in her community and participated in interfaith events. Moreno represented Osama bin Laden's driver in a U.S. Supreme Court case.
Elshiekh's defense attorneys denied the case was connected to her Muslim faith.
“The trial will show how her beliefs are completely at odds with the elements of this case,” Swift added after Friday's hearing. “We will see who Nevine really is, a woman who was recently divorced and was the victim of an evil man. And we believe Hysen Sherifi to be an evil man.”
But a woman with the same name as the defendant was quoted in a January story about the Raleigh men's convictions on the blog The Electronic Intifada saying: “I think Islam has been on trial.”
FBI agent Hanish testified that Elshiekh attended the New Bern trial of the three Raleigh men convicted in October. Hanish said Elshiekh wrote to each of the men in jail but the majority of her letters were to Hysen Sherifi.
But Attorney Charles Swift questioned whether Elshiekh would have acted independently in the plot if she had not corresponded with Hysen Sherifi.
Elshiekh and both Sherifi brothers are being held in the New Hanover County Detention Facility.
Elshiekh's attorneys said they did not know when the U.S. Attorney in the case would seek an indictment.
About 30 members of Elshiekh's family and close friends from Raleigh attended the hearing. After the judge's ruling, some of Elshiekh's supporters left the courtroom crying.
Elshiekh's family would not comment for this story. Emails and phone calls to the Islamic Association of Raleigh, the mosque she and her family attend, were not returned.