Sunday, October 06, 2002

Riddle in Seattle: Is Man Held by U.S. a Terrorist or Just a Hustler?
By the time James Ujaama returned here three months ago, he knew that federal agents had been following him for months and that his past would soon be interpreted in a way that would shock people here in his hometown, his friends said.

In many ways, Mr. Ujaama was a changed man after five years in London. A convert to Islam, he spoke passionately of wanting to work against laws loosening restrictions on wiretapping terrorism suspects.

But in other ways, he was the same person, known in Seattle's Central District for trying to sell everything from motivational books to a screenplay about his life.

"At the end of our meeting, he sold me a shirt," said Larry Gossett, a member of the King County Council. "That's the James Ujaama I know. He was always a good hustler."

In court this week, federal prosecutors painted another picture. Mr. Ujaama, they said, had attended training camps of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; had tried to help set up a terrorist camp in the United States; and had taken a loyalty oath to a London cleric, Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri, described by prosecutors as "perhaps one of the best-known terrorists in the world."

After weighing testimonials about Mr. Ujaama's good character against the image of him as someone in league with terrorists, a federal magistrate judge, John Weinberg, appeared as perplexed as anyone about Mr. Ujaama.

"His background is exemplary," Judge Weinberg said on Tuesday. "But people change. And the record suggests some drastic and tragic changes for Mr. Ujaama." He ordered Mr. Ujaama held without bail.

The riddle of James Ujaama, who is well known among this city's African-Americans, may not be solved for some time. Although he was indicted in late August on a charge of conspiring to help Al Qaeda establish a terrorist training camp on a ranch in southern Oregon, his trial could be more than a year away, his lawyers say.

Some prominent blacks in Seattle support Mr. Ujaama, saying he appears to be the victim of the persecution that black leaders endured in the past.

"I can't see anything in his past that would indicate he would ever be involved with violent terrorists," said Eddie Rye Jr., regional vice president of the Black Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Rye has known Mr. Ujaama for more than 20 years. Like other longtime acquaintances, Mr. Rye suggests the activities that the government says are part of a plot can by explained by Mr. Ujaama's lifetime of making deals.

"James Ujaama first and foremost is an entrepreneur," Mr. Rye said. "He had prepared himself since an early age for success."

As a child, Mr. Ujaama worked at food banks and social service centers in Seattle, helping his mother, Peggy Thompson. As a young man, he established a computer business, sold pamphlets encouraging young blacks to stay off drugs and succeed through the American dream, and was a motivational speaker.

A state legislator, Jesse Wineberry, once issued a citation declaring a statewide day of recognition for Mr. Ujaama.

But Mr. Ujaama also has a criminal record, which his supporters have played down. It includes a felony conviction for check fraud and four convictions for misdemeanors, including theft and domestic violence, the federal authorities say.…