Guilty verdicts put bin Laden on notice

Convictions set the scene for trials of five other defendants now in custody.

With the conviction this week of four of Osama bin Laden's followers for bombing two US embassies in Africa, American prosecutors put the international terrorist on notice: The arm of American law is long and still reaching for him.

Mr. bin Laden and 12 other fugitives accused of conspiracy in the bombings are still at large. And prosecutors pledged to "remain permanently and unrelentingly committed" to tracking him down and convicting him.

The guilty verdicts - on all 302 counts - returned on Tuesday in a hushed Manhattan courtroom were a sweeping victory for prosecutors. They alleged the men were part of an international conspiracy led by bin Laden to kill American citizens. The almost simultaneous blasts in August of 1998 tore the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, into twisted piles of rubble, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans.

"This ... puts on notice any individual ... who seeks to attack United States persons or interests abroad that the rule of law is more powerful than any terrorist bomb," says Barry Mawn of the FBI office in New York.

Experts say the implications will be felt around the world. Although the verdict may embolden bin Laden's army of followers, it could also hurt their morale by showing them they're vulnerable to law enforcement. "It keeps them off balance and makes travel more difficult," says Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center.

The verdict will also ripple through diplomatic circles, as the US and other countries try to tighten the net on international terrorist groups. Currently, the United Nations Security Council is trying to find ways to implement an arms embargo against Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding. For years, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has claimed there is no evidence linking bin Laden to terrorism.

"Historically, some countries have used this as an excuse for inaction," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank. "This verdict deprives them of one more excuse."

The jury's verdict will also set the stage for the trials of five other defendants already in custody. They will face the same kind of meticulous paper trail of evidence, put together by FBI agents. "These kinds of cases are really hard to put on. They are more like doctoral dissertations than an ordinary trial," says Ruth Wedgwood, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Yale University.

Two of the men convicted of the bombings, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed and Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, could face the death penalty. They sat stoically as the jury forewoman took more than an hour to read the guilty verdicts on each of the counts.

Mr. al-'Owhali was convicted of riding in the truck carrying the bomb that blew up the embassy in Nairobi. Prosecutors say he threw stun grenades at the guards to get the truck close to the embassy and leapt out moments before the blast.

Mr. Mohamed was convicted of helping to make the bomb that tore up the embassy in Tanzania, buying the truck that transported it, and accompanying it part of the way to its destination.

The penalty phase of the trial, during which the jury will determine whether the two men will face the death penalty, got under way yesterday. Some experts worry that the men, if sentenced to death, could be turned into martyrs for bin Laden's cause. "It's much harder for terrorists if they end up rotting in prison," says Rand's Mr. Hoffman.

Wadih El-Hage, the only American citizen accused in the bombing, was convicted of conspiracy in the bombings and perjury for earlier testimony about bin Laden's group. He was also portrayed as a close personal assistant to bin Laden. "Of any, his conviction will hurt the most. He was more of a player than a foot soldier," says Hoffman.

But Mr. El-Hage's attorney, Samuel Schmidt, insists that his client was wrongly convicted and plans to appeal. He says the government proved only that El-Hage was associated with bin Laden and the others, but that it never proved any criminal intent.

"The evidence against him was that of association, not of conspiracy," says Mr. Schmidt. "This shows just how difficult it is to try a case like this in front of an American jury."

Mohamed Sadeek Odeh was convicted of conspiracy for being a technical adviser to the Nairobi bombing. His attorneys also plan to appeal.

Despite the verdicts against the men, terrorism experts warn that America needs to be alert, particularly to the threat of hostage-taking in the name of terrorism. Only this week, a group in the Philippines kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, and demanded the release of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, convicted in the bombing of the World Trade Center, and Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted in 1996 of plotting to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and other landmarks.

"It's a time-honored and traditional technique of terrorists," says Mr. Pillar, author of a new book, "Terrorism and US Foreign Policy." "However, the US has a reputation as unyielding under duress."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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