One of the Bush administration’s favorite legal weapons in the domestic war on terrorism faces a critical test at a trial set to begin tomorrow in Boise, Idaho.

The weapon is a law aimed not at masterminds or bombers but at secondary players who provide terrorists with “material support and resources.” The phrase provides a flexible net, and prosecutors have used it to charge 57 people in Detroit; Lackawanna, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Tampa and other cities since Sept. 11, 2001. But some federal judges, uneasy about the provision’s vagueness and its potential to squelch free speech, have begun to poke holes in it.

Now, the case of Saudi graduate student Sami Omar al-Hussayen could help determine how aggressively the government will be able to pursue alleged promoters of terrorism: people who raise money, offer advice or amplify calls to violence.

No one disputes that Mr. Hussayen, a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate in computer science, is a loving husband, a gentle father of three young boys and an esteemed leader of the Muslim community in this small town. But in its indictment, the government accuses the University of Idaho student of setting up a series of Web sites and an e-mail group that recruited fighters and collected funds “for violent jihad in Israel, Chechnya and other places.”

The most incendiary message that has come to light in government court filings is an “urgent appeal” posted in February 2003 by another individual in the e-mail group that Mr. Hussayen allegedly helped to moderate. It called on Muslim-American soldiers to “provide information on potential targets for attacks,” such as U.S. military bases in the Middle East and the bases’ drinking-water supplies.

Describing the Hussayen case in a statement last month, Attorney General John Ashcroft said: “We will aggressively pursue and prosecute those who use their specialized computer skills to knowingly and intentionally support such terrorist conspiracies.”

Mr. Hussayen, who has been held in jail on immigration charges for more than a year, asserts he’s innocent and opposes terrorism in any form. His lawyer, David Z. Nevin, likens his client to an online-magazine editor, exercising his First Amendment right to disseminate a range of views, some of which he may not share.

The Hussayen case first surfaced publicly in February 2003, when dozens of federal agents swarmed the University of Idaho campus to arrest Mr.

Hussayen and question his family and friends. Court filings alluded to tens of thousands of tapped phone calls and e-mails. In pretrial hearings, the government referred repeatedly to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

But the actual counts in the original indictment involved only visa fraud and false statements. Mr. Hussayen allegedly failed to tell immigration officials that in addition to studying, he was doing Web-site work and fund raising for a Saudi-backed group called the Islamic Assembly of North America. Hussayen friends — both Muslim and non-Muslim — pointed out that the man they knew joined a candlelight march in the days after Sept. 11 and helped run a blood drive for victims…


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