The beginnings of justice against Al Qaeda
Sentencing hearing is today for four men guilty in bombings of two US embassies.
NEW YORK — For Americans who want to see Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers brought to justice, today is at least a start.
In a triumph for the US rule of law, four men tied to the Al Qaeda network will be sentenced for their roles in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. The sentencing in New York is the capstone of a painstakingly constructed prosecution - one that for the first time revealed the depth, complexity, and international reach of Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network. But it also serves as a bitter reminder of just how hard it is to anticipate the actions of a shadowy, far-flung group bent on destruction, no matter how much is known about its adherents in advance.
"The trial revealed some explosive information about Al Qaeda's loosely affiliated networks of radicals that share resources, pool intelligence and expertise, come together, and then disperse," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the counterterrorism task force at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank. "But to be able to know what, when, where, and how something is going to happen next is very different from understanding what the organization looks like."
For Howard Kavaler, whose wife was killed in the embassy blast in Nairobi, Kenya, it will be bittersweet to sit again in a Manhattan courtroom, just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, to hear the judge hand down the sentences.
On one level, the trial and sentencing are a "shining moment" for America, because the men, whom he calls "pariahs," had a fair trial with competent counsel. But they are also a pointed reminder of the urgent threat he felt in the wake of those attacks - and of his frustrations that other Americans did not take what happened in Africa more seriously.
"I find it distressing that it takes the World Trade Center and Pentagon catastrophes to get the body politic galvanized to do anything," he says. "The threat was out there all along."
The six-month-long trial, which ended in May with the men's convictions, is the result of the largest international criminal investigation at the time for the US. During the trial, prosecutors painstakingly "connected the dots," revealing the depth, complexity, and international reach of Al Qaeda long before Sept. 11.
Former CIA Director John Deutch admitted that the inability of the intelligence community to detect and prevent the subsequent Al Qaeda attacks was "one of the great failures of all time." But he also noted that by the very nature of intelligence work, there are many successes that the public will never know about.
"You have to look forward here. It doesn't help to spend time, on the occasion of such risk to all of us, assigning blame as much it is to say, 'How do we equip ourselves to do better in the future?' " says Mr. Deutch.
Still, that's a question Mr. Kavaler and other family members believe should have been asked long ago, particularly in light of the evidence brought out in the courtroom.
This was the first terrorist trial in the US that went beyond the men sitting there to outline bin Laden's terror network, how it worked, and what its fundamental, stated goal was: to kill Americans.
A main piece of evidence in the trial was a 108-page terror manual that, in retrospect, reads like a "how to" guidebook for the embassy bombings and the Sept. 11 attacks.
For the Al Qaeda operative who lives in the West, it recommends lying low, avoiding chatty conversations, and shaving one's beard. It gives explicit instructions on how to assassinate adversaries, build bombs, torture prisoners, and escape undetected after an operation.
"All documents of the undercover brother, such as identity cards and passport, should be falsified," it recommends in one of the early lessons.
Intelligence experts warn that information often looks much clearer in hindsight. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. in Washington, says the intelligence community took bin Laden very seriously for years. The CIA had set up a special task force to focus on him in the mid-1990s.
"People knew he was going to strike. In retrospect, you can put the pieces together much more effectively, but we didn't know where or how," says Mr. Hoffman. "What we're seeing is the power of terrorism and why it's such an attractive weapon to our adversaries. They know that we can't defend every possible target everywhere all the time."
Even in hindsight, sorting out the knowledge of the terrorists' operations and the government's reaction is difficult. Hoffman points out that prior to the embassy attacks, American interests in Africa had not been targets of international terrorists, so the attacks came as quite a surprise.
But family members such as Edith Bartley, who lost her father - the consul general at the Embassy - and brother in the Nairobi attacks, doesn't buy that argument. Before the Aug. 7 blasts, the government knew a bin Laden terrorist cell was operating in Kenya. It was also fully aware that the Embassy there did not pass the minimum security standards required by law.
"Our government was clearly negligent," says Ms. Bartley.
The family members of the Americans killed have filed a multimillion-dollar liability suit against the State Department, contending that it didn't take the known threats seriously enough. Because they were never compensated, a move was made to include them in the compensation package for the Sept. 11 victims, but it failed.
"We just want the government to acknowledge those lives that were lost," says Bartley. "Before Sept. 11, terrorism and the loss of life abroad was given very little attention. It's been very difficult to grieve and have closure as a result."