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Man accused of plan to attack Milwaukee temple goes on trial

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A man accused of plotting a mass shooting in defense of Islam at a Masonic temple in downtown Milwaukee will try to convince jurors at his trial starting Wednesday that FBI informants encouraged him for months to purchase weapons for the attack.

Attorneys for 26-year-old Samy Hamzeh plan to argue that the FBI entrapped their client, who they say never owned a gun, has no criminal record, and was incapable of mass murder. The FBI has said their agents thwarted an act of terrorism when they arrested Hamzeh in January 2016.

The Journal Sentinel reports that Hamzeh, an American citizen who spent his childhood in Jordan, was ultimately only charged with possessing two machine guns and a silencer, all of which he bought from undercover FBI agents who had informants set up the deal.

The federal trial has dragged on for four years because hundreds of hours of conversations in Arabic had to be transcribed and translated to English. Hamzeh spent two years in jail awaiting trial before a judge in July 2018 allowed him to live with his parents pending trial. His lawyers have argued that the two years he spent in jail are already more than he would likely get if convicted.

The case against Hamzeh began when a longtime friend identified in court records only as Steve, who was in the country illegally, told FBI agents in September 2015 that Hamzeh talked of going to Egypt to get a gun and terrorist training. That's when the FBI planted a professional informant, identified only as Mike, to work at the same restaurant as Hamzeh and Steve, according to court documents.

Mike introduced Hamzeh to YouTube videos espousing the belief that Masons secretly support the Islamic State, which through its terrorism was discrediting all Muslims, according to court records. That's how Hamzeh and the informants settled on Milwaukee's Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Temple as a target. Defense attorneys argue the FBI induced Hamzeh to buy weapons by offering them at cheaper price and after months of indoctrination.

Mike recorded his conversations with Hamzeh, but not all are being allowed as evidence. U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper, who will oversee the trial, ruled that some were prejudicial. Included among the recorded conversations with Mike and Steve are Hamzeh's cancellation of the attack after he said he consulted with two imams who told him what he was planning was wrong.

But a magistrate judge who heard a request from Hamzeh to be released on bail in 2017 did not see that conversation as evidence that Hamzeh wasn't really committed to violence. "It comes down to this," wrote then-U.S. Magistrate Judge David E. Jones. "It should not take the spiritual guidance of two religious leaders to dissuade a person from committing mass murder."

After Hamzeh's arrest, Steve was sent to Jordan and Mike was paid $7,300 and given $900 for a new phone and number.

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