Patriot Games 

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

The cops had never seen anything like it. Not in one place, at least. Not in Bedford, Ohio, anyway. More than 100 pounds of explosives, dynamite, a booby-trap detonating device, and Beretta and Uzi submachine guns.

As it turned out, it would take three years and a cross-country investigation by the Bedford police and the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms before a rather dramatic explanation for the stash found that September day in 1996 was offered up: The contents of unit J-2 at the Self-Serve Mini Storage Facility on Broadway Avenue were the last remnants of a campaign of violence against the Turkish government that dated back more than 20 years. International terrorism, it seems, had come to rest in suburban Cleveland.

That's what federal prosecutors believe, anyway. In documents filed in federal court during the last year, the U.S. Attorney's office has outlined a web of terrorism linked to the material in the Bedford storage locker. The explosives, the feds say, are part of a haul originally stolen from a mining site near Kalkaska, Michigan, in 1976 -- a cache investigators believed was eventually used in a 1980 terrorist attack on the Turkish mission to the United Nations in New York City that injured three people.

At the time, responsibility for that bombing was claimed by the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), one of two Armenian organizations that coordinated violent attacks against Turkish diplomats and government officials around the globe in the '70s and early '80s, all aimed at bringing attention to the slaughter of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire 80 years ago.

Even more surprising than the international intrigue spawned by the opening of the storage locker, however, was the identity of the man federal prosecutors now say was responsible for the material: Mourad Topalian. A well-connected political operative who was once a guest at a White House coffee, Topalian is one of the most prominent Armenian Americans in the country, the onetime vice president of development at Cuyahoga Community College, and former head of the Armenian National Committee of America.

These days, the U.S. government says he was once something else: a terrorist.

Court documents make it clear, however, that Topalian has a far different story to tell. In May, he agreed to plead guilty to the two least serious charges -- possessing the guns and explosives -- of five counts laid out in the original indictment. Even so, he could face up to 37 months in federal prison when he's sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aldrich early next year.

Though the plea agreement allowed Topalian to avoid taking responsibility for the Turkish mission bombing, prosecutors have shown little desire to back off from their assertion that Topalian masterminded the New York City bombing. Still, if the government believes he was a violent radical, there are plenty of others in this country's Armenian community who call him something else: a hero.

"He's done a lot of great things," says Violet Dagdigian, a cousin who lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, "not just for the Armenian community, but for the American community . . . If anything, the American community is going to lose even more than the Armenian community, because they're not going to get the benefit of all that he has done."

Topalian's admirers aren't limited to friends and family. In September, he was given an award by the Western Region chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America for his "relentless pursuit of justice for the Armenian nation."

Much of that praise is due to Topalian's tireless advocacy on behalf of Armenian causes during the last decade, a time in which Armenians became an important voting block in several parts of the country, particularly California. In 1991, Topalian became the national chairman of the Armenian National Committee, one of the two major organizations that lobby Washington.

"I haven't followed his story that closely, but I do know that he has done a lot of good things, and people are thankful for that and they support him," says Father Haroutiun Dagley, the priest at St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Church in Richmond Heights, the largest Armenian Church in the area.

That support has turned out to be financial as well as emotional. Last summer, the Mourad Topalian Defense Committee organized five fund-raisers to collect money for his legal bills. At one event in Lexington, Massachusetts, the committee raised $20,000.

One place Armenians seem to be less than passionate about Topalian, curiously enough, is in his own hometown. "The thing is, when we go to church, the subject doesn't come up," says Dr. Sebouh Setrakian, a pathologist at Fairview Hospital who is involved in the Armenian General Benevolent Union and has met Topalian a couple of times. "I've heard he raised a lot of money for the Armenian community, but everything I know I read in The Plain Dealer."

One reason for the ambivalence, say local Armenians, is the obvious unease many people still have in discussing the role of Armenian terrorism against Turks, even 15 years after it stopped.

In the '70s, two Armenian terrorist organizations, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos -- the group to which Topalian allegedly belonged -- began targeting Turkish government officials. It was their way of reminding the world about what Armenians believe was a genocidal campaign by the Ottoman Empire against their forebears during World War I.

For 85 years, the issue has been fraught with controversy, with precious little ground shared between Turks and Armenians about what exactly happened. Armenians say as many as 1.5 million of their ancestors were systematically slaughtered by the Ottomans from 1915 to 1923. The Turkish government -- which emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 -- says both Armenians and Ottomans engaged in atrocities during what was, they say, essentially a civil war.

The Armenian terrorist groups rose up out of a desire to spotlight what had become a forgotten part of history, says Levon Chorbajian, a scholar with the Zoryan Institute, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based think tank for studying the Armenian genocide. "By no means was there universal support in the Armenian community for [terrorism]," he says. Even so, "There was a segment in the community that wanted to use terrorism to resurrect the events of 1915 to gain publicity for it, to gain international recognition for the genocide."

But by the mid-'80s, Armenian terrorism had fizzled out, in large part due to infighting among and between ASALA and the Justice Commandos, says Michael M. Gunter, the author of Pursuing the Just Cause of Their People. In addition, the groups' activities had became embarrassing for many Armenians around the world.

"The implied backing on the part of some of the Armenian community worldwide . . . it became obvious that it was self-defeating and giving the Armenians a bad name," Gunter says.

That history is likely to be revisited in January, when Topalian is scheduled to receive his sentence. Though his plea agreement explicitly distanced him from the Turkish mission bombing, prosecutors have made no secret of their hope to present evidence and witnesses that will link him to the attack.

"Certainly, there is evidence that we would be able to put on or would like to put on to give that indication," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Gruscinski. "Put it this way: We don't usually make allegations we can't back up."

More by Andrew Putz


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