Syed Haris Ahmed, 24, had waived his right to a jury trial so he could deliver closing arguments and warned last month he would use his time to focus on the "message of Islam."
Even so, the judge, prosecutors and even his defense attorney seemed unprepared: He read nine verses of the Quran in Arabic and never directly addressed the charges that could land him 15 years in federal prison.
"I hope that if I deliver the message that has been revealed by Allah, the promise of protection from evil will come to me," Mr. Ahmed said during the hushed and sometimes stumbling 45-minute address.
Prosecutors contend that Mr. Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee took a 2005 road trip to Washington, D.C., to shoot 62 "casing videos" of the Pentagon, the Capitol and other landmarks they wanted to send overseas to earn the respect of foreign terrorists.
The clips, in addition to Mr. Ahmed's alleged attempts to connect with terrorists in Canada and Pakistan, are at the center of federal charges that he provided support for terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.
Mr. Sadequee, who has also pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to go on trial in August.
"The case is not about throwing bombs and shooting soldiers, it's about providing support for those activities," said assistant U.S. attorney Robert McBurney, who later evoked images of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The whole point is to get to the would-be terrorist before he enrolls in flight school and figures out how to fly a commercial airline," he said.
Defense attorney Jack Martin countered that federal investigators overstated the videos' importance and claimed the talk was boastful chatter from a misguided student.
Mr. Ahmed said no one harassed him about his beliefs during his 10 years living in Georgia, and said he only wanted to help the public understand his faith.
He spoke of linguistic similarities between Hebrew and Arabic, quoted from the Quran and the Bible, and delved into some of the shared beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.