A trial's fallout for international terrorists

The case against four Muslim defendants is designed to cut to the heart of Osama bin Laden's organization.

After three months, thousands of exhibits, and dozens of witnesses, some with heart-wrenching testimony, one of the more unusual trials in American history is coming to a close - and may hold significant implications for the fight against terrorism.

In what's become known as the embassy bombing trial, four Muslim defendants sit in a Manhattan courtroom accused of killing 224 people, including 12 Americans, tens of thousands of miles away in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

But this is more than just a trial about who did what. It's about an international conspiracy to kill Americans.

It's designed to cut to the heart of Osama bin Laden's deadly international organization, which is based in Afghanistan. It has already demonstrated to law-enforcement agencies around the world how sophisticated, calculating, and patient fanatics can be when planning their attacks.

"What was significant about this trial is the unseen presence in the courtroom other than the defendants," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. in Washington. "It could help the State Department and the US position at the UN because it explodes the myth that this was an independent group but was part of a global conspiracy."

At least, that's what the prosecutors are determined to prove. In closing arguments, they contended that Mr. bin Laden - who is still at large - was the mastermind behind the two embassy blasts in August 1998.

As far back as 1990, prosecutors say, bin Laden set up the international organization Al-Qaeda to wage a holy war against the US and other non-Muslim governments. All four of the defendants are alleged to be members of the organization.

In their presentation, prosecutors painted bin Laden as outraged when US troops landed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, because it is the home of two of Islam's holiest sites - Mecca and Medina. They also charged that bin Laden's group orchestrated the attacks against the US marines in Somalia in 1993 from a base in Nairobi, which was later used to plan the embassy attack.

During those years, Al-Qaeda was alleged to have grown up like "a multinational corporation," with offices around the world and business investments, along with camps and farms to train young men in bombmaking and firearms use.

"Al-Qaeda is what it is, a group dedicated to fighting Americans," said lead prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on Tuesday during his concluding remarks. "Somalia proves the group was working against America as far back as then."

Two of the defendants, Wadih El-Hage and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, are charged in the overall conspiracy, but not of participating directly in the embassy bombings.

As family members of the victims from Kenya and Tanzania sat in the turn-of-the-century courtroom, the defendant's lawyers argued forcefully that the government had failed to show any concrete evidence a conspiracy existed. At best, they said, the government showed that some of the men knew one another, as well as others in Al-Qaeda.

"Prosecutors say they want you to use your common sense," Anthony Ricco told the jury in his closing arguments. "But what they're really saying is that this is guilt by association.... But there is no evidence whatsoever that Mohamed Odeh was the technical adviser to the bombing."

The two other defendants, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, allegedly confessed to direct roles in the bombings and could face the death penalty. But Mr. Al-Owhali's lawyer contended his client's statement that he was in the truck in Nairobi moments before the blast was coerced and should be put aside.

Mr. Mohamed's attorney, however, took a far more conciliatory tone. David Ruhnke maintained Mohamed was a minor character, at best, who rented the house in Dar es Salaam where the bombing was planned. "He had to ask what TNT was," Mr. Ruhnke told the jurors this week.

But he also freely cooperated with the FBI, Ruhnke said. Without that, there would be little evidence linking him.

If convicted, a separate death-penalty phase will be held for Odeh and al-Owhali after the trial. While many of the victims and their relatives favor the death penalty, some experts say that such a sentence could be counterproductive.

"For an individual who seeks martyrdom, if they fail to get it on the battlefield, this affords the opportunity," says the Rand Corporation's Mr. Hoffman. "It has the potential to further inflame the situation overseas."

Even as the case winds to a close, the US is continuing to press the Taliban government in Afghanistan to deny bin Laden refuge. For the past four months, the UN has imposed sanctions against sending arms to Afghanistan. Taliban leaders cannot travel outside the country, and the nation's airline is grounded.

However, terrorism experts say bin Laden and his associates continue to run training camps. "He has given no indication he's stepping back from his belief that it's OK to kill as many Americans as possible," says Paul Pillar, author of a new book, "Terrorism and US Foreign Policy."

The bin Laden attacks have forced the US to look more deeply at security at embassies around the world. Until the 1998 blasts, the US divided its embassies into high, medium and low risk. Even though the Nairobi embassy was easily accessible, it was deemed a low risk. But all that has changed.

"Now, we're trying to enhance security and treating every place as a potentially high-threat area," says Mr. Pillar, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The Nairobi bombing shows that terrorists search for targets of convenience."

According to the General Accounting Office, the State Department has determined that 80 percent of overseas diplomatic facilities do not have adequate security. To remedy this problem, State envisions a 10- to 15-year program costing $15 billion for projects in 180 locations. But Congress has appropriated only $1.1 billion since the bombings.

Terrorism experts, however, warn that adding more concrete barriers or shifting to shatterproof glass is not the entire answer. Instead, they say the US needs a more "holistic approach" that incorporates intelligence and working with other governments. "We need to take steps to get there before the bomb goes off," says Frank Cilluffo, a terrorism expert at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank.

This trial, says Mr. Cilluffo, is part of the overall defense against terrorism. It's a reminder to bin Laden that retribution is possible within democratic norms. "It helps to keep him on edge, the same as he keeps us on edge."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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