Bombing Trial Begins Amid Terrorism Scare
After preventing latest alleged bomb plot, US pursues conviction of man in World Trade Center case
NEW YORK — After four years, the World Trade Center bombing is approaching a legal end - one that could send a tough signal to terrorists worldwide.
Today, the government will present opening arguments that Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was the so-called mastermind of the February 1993 bombing that killed six people and injured 1,000.
The trial will take place in the heavily guarded courtroom of Judge Kevin Duffy, who has presided over the two earlier trials related to the bombing. Like those cases, this one will be closely watched nationwide since the bombing - one of the few terrorist attacks on US soil - is considered a watermark in US history.
"I think the real message of this trial is that there is no place where you are safe if you commit an act of terrorism against the United States," says John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School.
The trial is taking on even more importance, coming as it does amid the investigation by the FBI and local police into an apparent plot to blow up New York's subway system.
Last Thursday, in a lightning raid, New York police seized three men of Middle East background and several bombs after one of the suspects' roommates flagged down a security officer and told him of the alleged plot.
By Friday, there were reports that the FBI had linked the men to Hamas, an extremist Palestinian group.
"The arrest says these guys are still at it - we haven't found a way to discourage the political use of terrorism," says Michael Dobkowski, an expert on terrorism and a professor at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y.
The latest alleged terrorist episode once again raises questions about the system that allows individuals to obtain visas to the United States, and further highlights the threat of terrorism in the US.
Revisiting the visa system
According to court documents, one of the men, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, said in a request for political asylum that he had been previously arrested in Israel and accused of being a member of a known terrorist organization. News organizations claimed the FBI had linked Mr. Mezer and another of the men to Hamas.
"There should have been some cross checking," says Khalid Duran, editor of TransState Islam, a publication of the Institute for International Studies, an organization that specializes in terrorism and security issues.
Mr. Duran says his organization "constantly" sees people friendly to the US denied visas while opponents of the US are allowed into the country.
"I think there needs to be a lot of additional training for the officers who issue visas," he says.
Case against Yousef
During the Yousef trial, the government is expected to show that he had also entered the US with the intent to cause injury. Prosecutors claim Mr. Yousef's fingerprints were found on two of the 12 explosives manuals found in a Jersey City apartment rented by other men already convicted of the bombing.
In addition, his fingerprints were found in a storage locker where some of the bomb elements were stored. Prosecutors will describe Yousef, who used 11 different aliases, as an expert in constructing bombs.
Because much of the evidence is forensic, the issue of the FBI's laboratory practices is expected to become part of the trial. Defense attorneys want to exclude evidence gathered in the lab because of a whistleblower's contention that workers were ordered to tailor their reports to convict the four men already found guilty of the attack. Judge Duffy will have to decide whether to allow the FBI analysis into the trial.
In fact, at the center of a series of appeals from earlier trials, the FBI has been accused of skewing lab results to bring about convictions.
So far there have been four trials. In March 1994, four men were convicted of the actual bombing and received a sentence of 240 years in prison.
In January 1996, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, and nine followers, were convicted of plotting to blow up the Holland tunnel and other landmarks and were given long jail sentences.
Then, last September, Yousef and 3 co-defendants were convicted, in a separate trial, for plotting to blow up airliners around the world. They have not been sentenced yet.
Although this case will mark the end of the World Trade Center trials, it may not represent the end for Judge Duffy, who has presided over the trials.
This year, Mr. Coffee ran into Duffy in Hawaii at a legal conference. The men went out for some whale watching.
But the judge was not alone - he had two federal marshals to protect him around the clock. "They will be with him for the rest of his life - its the kind of cost these trials require," says Coffee.