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Mass shooting plot: Translating Arabic conversations with informants will be a daunting task

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MILWAUKEE -- The case against Samy Mohammed Hamzeh, accused of plotting a mass shooting at a Masonic temple in Milwaukee is headed to trial -- but that trial won't begin anytime soon. Prosecutors say evidence against Hamzeh is contained in recorded conversations -- and those conversations must be translated from Arabic.

Hamzeh appeared in federal court with his public defender on Tuesday, February 9th, and his lawyer entered a plea FOX6 News obtained an audio recording of.

Samy Hamzeh (Sketch by Jeff Darrow)

Samy Hamzeh (Sketch by Jeff Darrow)

"Not guilty, Your Honor," Hamzeh's lawyer said.

Hamzeh said little during the court appearance, but he allegedly had a lot more to say to FBI informants.

According to the criminal complaint, Hamzeh had been under investigation since September 2015. The investigation revealed that, in October 2015, Hamzeh planned to travel to Jordan, enter the West Bank, and conduct an attack on Israeli soldiers and citizens living in the West Bank. Hamzeh later abandoned those plans and began to focus on conducting an attack in the United States.

According to the criminal complaint, Hamzeh has engaged in extensive conversations with two confidential sources (referred to here as CS-1 and CS-2). Those conversations, which were in Arabic, were monitored, recorded, and translated by the FBI beginning in October 2015.

During those recorded conversations, Hamzeh explained that he wanted to commit a domestic act of violence and, in January, he settled on a Masonic temple in Milwaukee as his target.

Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center in downtown Milwaukee

Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center in downtown Milwaukee

On January 19th, 2016, Hamzeh, CS-1 and CS-2 went to a shooting range, and then took a guided tour of the Masonic temple, during which they learned meeting schedules and where people would be located during meetings. In a recorded conversation after they left the temple, Hamzeh, discussed his plans with CS-1 and CS-2. In that conversation, Hamzeh reaffirmed his intention to commit an armed attack on the temple and discussed in further detail how they would carry out the attack.

Hamzeh made plans to purchase machine guns and silencers from two individuals who, unbeknownst to Hamzeh, were undercover FBI agents. He met with them, along with CS-1 and CS-2, on January 25, 2016. He was then arrested.

There are hours of recorded conversations in Arabic in this case.

Federal judge hearing the case against Samy Hamzeh (Sketch by Jeff Darrow)

Federal judge hearing the case against Samy Hamzeh (Sketch by Jeff Darrow)

"Your lawyers are going to need to get those translated and then listen to those conversations and make determinations," the judge said.

Prosecutors say the recorded conversations will show that Hamzeh plotted an attack in Milwaukee. Prosecutors say Hamzeh intended to kill as many as 30 people.

Court proceedings are moving slowly as the defense works to get the conversations translated into English.

Prosecutors already did their own translation.

Samy Mohammed Hamzeh

Samy Mohammed Hamzeh

"We have 22 Arab countries, but we have different dialects," Islam Hindi said.

Hindi is a Wisconsin court interpreter and translator. He said there are challenges when it comes to translating Arabic into English.

"Like people from UAE (United Arab Emirates), use the word 'marah' as time -- to mean 'a lot.' but in Syria we use it as different dialect to mean 'once,'" Hindi said.

A direct translation could misinterpret things like sarcasm, according to Hindi.

"Sometimes we have like, Arabic words that doesn't have an English equivalent," Hindi said.

With hundreds of hours of audio tapes in Arabic, the time needed to simply listen to them is perhaps the easiest part. The culture, the context and the dialect are all things that need to be considered.

Islam Hindi

Islam Hindi

"Interpreting or translating -- it's not an easy task to do. It's not an easy career -- especially if you are translating highly sensitive text or audio that is going to lead to something serious," Hindi said.

Hindi says Hamzeh most likely speaks standard Arabic, and that is easier for translators. But still, the translation to English for some words may be difficult.

There is a status hearing for Hamzeh scheduled for March 29th to see how far the translating has come.

Shortly after Hamzeh's arrest, Daniel Stiller, Wisconsin's top federal defender said Hamzeh's defense would examine the conduct of the FBI informants in this case, and the accuracy and completeness of the translation from Arabic. He also said the defense would look at what the FBI informants were "contributing to the dialogue."


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  • molon labe

    So Waddaya Saying?
    So what really happens as an informant (fbi) works his target, sometimes over a period of years, and eases him over the line? For the answer to that, consider once more the case of James Cromitie [8], the Walmart stocker with a hatred of Jews. Cromitie was the ringleader in the much-publicized Bronx synagogue bombing plot that went to trial last year [78]. But a closer look at the record reveals that while Cromitie was no one’s idea of a nice guy, whatever leadership existed in the plot emanated from his sharply dressed, smooth-talking friend Maqsood, a.k.a. FBI informant Shahed Hussain.

  • nro

    Throughout the FBI’s history, informant numbers have been closely guarded secrets. Periodically, however, the bureau has released those figures. A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had 1,500 informant [15]s [15]. In 1980, officials disclosed there were 2,800 [16]. Six years later, following the FBI’s push into drugs and organized crime, the number of bureau informants ballooned to 6,000, the Los Angeles Times reported [16] in 1986. And according to the FBI, the number grew significantly after 9/11. In its fiscal year 2008 budget authorization request [17], the FBI disclosed that it had been working under a November 2004 presidential directive demanding an increase [18] in “human source development and management,” and that it needed $12.7 million [19] for a program to keep tabs on its spy network and create software to track and manage informants.
    University of California-Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program [98], headed by Lowell Bergman, where Trevor Aaronson [1] was an investigative fellow. The Fund for Investigative Journalism [99] also provided support for Aaronson’s reporting. Lauren Ellis [100] and Hamed Aleaziz [101] contributed additional research.

  • curveball

    Control through Fear. Sometimes you use fear to train a dog, even a child. The Elites are our parents. WE the PEOPLE are the kids. Raise your hand if you do not understand this dynamic. Yes it’s been happening for ages.
    Control through Fear. Sometimes you use fear to train a dog, even a child. The Elites are our parents. WE the PEOPLE are the kids. Raise your hand if you do not understand this dynamic. Yes it’s been happening for ages. Yes it’s F’kt up! Wake up and arm yourself while you can, tell the truth and don’t fall victim to the greedy scum bags that rule this earth. Stand up for the REAL America, LIFE, LIBERTY, Real TRUE American Patriots should continue to denounce the scripted Main Stream Media and continue to learn about our shadow gov’t.

    • Liberty City Seven case

      “Asked whether he thought the four men were a serious security risk before they were approached by the informant, Joseph M. Demarest Jr., who heads the F.B.I.’s New York office, said: “It was their plot and their plan that they pushed forward. We merely facilitated. They asked for the explosives. They asked for the Stingers, or rockets, I think, is the way they described it. They did leave the packages of what they believed to be real explosives, the bags, in front of two temples in the Bronx.”

      Vincent L. Briccetti, who represents Mr. Cromitie, said he was aware of Mr. Hussain’s role in the Albany case, which was reported on Friday in The New York Post.

      “His history is of interest to us,” Mr. Briccetti said.

      Court records from the Albany case show that Mr. Hussain came to the United States from Pakistan in 1993 or 1994. He appears to have held a variety of jobs, and come to own a number of businesses and properties. But in 2002, he was charged with a scheme involving taking money to illegally help people in the Albany area get driver’s licenses.

      To avoid being deported, he agreed to assist the government — first taking part in a sting aimed at the driver’s license scheme, and later in a heroin trafficking case. In 2003, the F.B.I. enlisted him in a more ambitious case. They wanted him to help them learn more about the intentions of a man who they worried might be supportive of terror, Yassin Aref, and toward that end, began to focus on his friend Mohammad Mosharref Hossain.

      Under the coaching of a federal agent, and often wearing a recording device, he met with the men, and presented himself as what he later at trial called “a wealthy radical.” Eventually, the government charged the two men with money laundering as part of a plot to acquire missiles, and perhaps use one to kill a Pakistani diplomat.

      Mr. Hussain testified at length at the trial of the two men, and defense lawyers sought to portray him as a tool of an overly zealous government.

      He said that he met with an F.B.I. agent before every encounter with the two men to go over his game plan.

      “What Agent Coll used to tell me, I used to tell them exactly,” Mr. Hussain testified under cross-examination about his dealings with the F.B.I. agent and the two men.

      “True,” he answered.

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