U.S. prepares to put terrorism on trial in unprecedented case


NEW YORK, AP

Federal prosecutors hope to turn the trial of four men in the deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa into an autopsy of a group blamed for plotting to kill Americans worldwide.

The four are among nearly two dozen men formally accused of engaging in terrorism after pledging loyalty to Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.

Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday when prospective jurors will tell lawyers and U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand whether they can be fair and endure a trial that may last six months.

Prosecutors hope to prove that bin Laden and his followers conspired against Americans through terrorist networks in places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Algeria, the Philippines, Kashmir and Chechnya.

The centerpiece of the case: the Aug. 7, 1998, twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that left 224 people dead — 12 Americans, 201 Kenyans and 11 other Africans.

Prosecutors plan to call 100 witnesses from six countries and to use confessions and circumstantial evidence including telephone and computer records.

The defendants have all maintained their innocence, challenging the government’s right to stage the trial in the United States and to use evidence gathered in foreign lands by methods they say would be illegal under U.S. standards.

The defendants heading to court for the first of several trials connected with the bombings include Wadih El-Hage, a 40-year-old Lebanese-born U.S. citizen who was a former personal secretary to bin Laden and who could face life in prison if convicted.

Two others — Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-’Owhali, 23, of Saudi Arabia and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, of Tanzania — could be sentenced to death if convicted of the conspiracy charges facing all of the defendants.

Al-’Owhali allegedly admitted to the FBI that on the day of the bombing he rode in the passenger seat of a bomb-laden van to the embassy in Nairobi and tossed a grenade at a guard outside.

Mohamed allegedly rented a house in his native Tanzania that was used as a bomb factory.

The fourth defendant, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 35, of Jordan, allegedly told investigators after the bombing that he went to Kenya five days before the bombings and met an explosives expert who led the Kenyan terrorism cell. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

The prosecution is unusual because the crimes were outside the United States, forcing hundreds of investigators to chase leads in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

By the time the case was built into a 161-page indictment, more than two dozen countries — including the United States — had been identified as having hosted, wittingly or not, parts of bin Laden’s sprawling organization.

Prosecutors portray the organization, al Qaeda, as targeting the United States because its way of life clashed with the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam and because it supported other “infidel” governments and institutions including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the United Nations.

In all, prosecutors have charged 22 men. Five are awaiting trial in New York, three are awaiting extradition from Britain and 13 remain at large. One man has already pleaded guilty.

Security inside and outside court has been tightened since El-Hage leaped past U.S. marshals during one appearance and charged toward the judge before he was tackled and subdued. Another defendant, whose trial has been postponed, allegedly stabbed a prison guard, critically injuring him.

Court papers recently unsealed have revealed that the U.S. government was investigating the Kenya cell of bin Laden’s organization more than two years before the bombings of the U.S. embassies.