NEW YORK, AP
An “evil and chilling” plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium originated when an Algerian cell of terrorists began training in Afghanistan to fight America, a prosecutor said Wednesday in an opening statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph F. Bianco said the plan to kill hundreds of people at the airport took shape in 1998 in a camp that included cells from Yemen, Germany, Italy, Jordan and other countries.
“The teaching at the camp was very clear: The United States was the enemy, and its citizens and its interests anywhere in the world are viable targets for terrorist attacks,” Bianco said, outlining a terrorism conspiracy case against defendant Mokhtar Haouari, an Algerian emigre.
Just days after gaining the cooperation of convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam, the prosecutor told jurors Ressam would testify of a plan “which can be described as nothing other than pure evil.”
“You’ll get a rare and chilling glimpse into the inside world of a terrorist,” Bianco promised, saying Ressam was telling the United States the names of other men who trained with him.
He described the origin and international nature of the plot in greater detail than the government had been able to do before.
“It was an evil and chilling plan involving explosives, death and destruction,” he said.
Bianco said Ressam, a Muslim who left Canada in 1998 for a yearlong weapons and explosives training in Afghanistan, wanted to fight a jihad, or holy war, in troubled spots around the globe.
Bianco said the Algerian cell was one of several cells planning terrorism attacks to coincide with the millennium.
A bomb was to be detonated in a suitcase outside a security checkpoint in one of the Los Angeles airport terminals at the height of the holidays, Bianco said.
In early 1999, Ressam returned to Canada with US$12,000 from the leader of his cell with instructions to set up a house for other cell members to help him attack the United States, Bianco said.
In the summer of 1999, a leader of the cell was stopped by immigration in London and other members of Ressam’s cell decided it was too dangerous to travel, he said.
So Ressam turned to Haouari, who gave Ressam US$3,000, a fake Canadian driver’s license, a false name and someone to meet him in America in December 1999, Bianco said.
Instead, Ressam was arrested by U.S. agents who in a routine inspection at Port Angeles, Washington, spotted a trunkful of explosives in his car as he crossed the border from Canada.
The explosives were aimed at “a terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport” at the height of the holidays, Bianco said.
Bianco said Haouari did not necessarily know the target of the attack but knew Ressam, also Algerian, was on a terrorism mission of destruction.
When the prosecutor pointed at Haouari and said, “Ressam turned to this man,” the 32-year-old defendant cursed, calling the prosecutor a liar.
“Now be quiet Mr. Haouari and don’t do that again,” U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan scolded.”Just sit there and remain quiet.”
Haouari, an Algerian emigre from Montreal, waived extradition proceedings after his arrest in Canada.
His lawyer, Daniel J. Ollen, gestured toward his client and told the jury: “That man is not a terrorist.”
He called his client a “semi retired con man, a two-bit thief.”
Ollen blasted the credibility of the prosecution’s star witnesses, Ressam and Abdel Ghani Meskini, an Algerian living in Brooklyn who went to Seattle to meet Ressam in December 1999.
Meskini has pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to conspiracy in a cooperation deal aimed at winning leniency.
Ressam was convicted April 6 in federal court in Los Angeles of charges including explosives smuggling, lying to customs officials and planning to commit acts of international terrorism.
Ollen said Ressam and Meskini were “the gang of two, both desperate men.”
“Both went to the government looking for a deal,” Ollen said.