Verdict in N.Y. Bomb Trial Seen as Signal to Terrorists
US declares victory as jury convicts four men for the 1993 bombing
NEW YORK — THE United States government is hoping it has provided a lesson for would-be terrorists: If you try to operate in the US, you will be caught, tried and jailed, possibly for the rest of your life.
That's the message following the conviction on Friday of all four men charged with bombing the World Trade Center a little more than a year ago.
Now, the government is preparing for an even larger terrorism trial in September when it will try to get a conviction of 15 men, some of whom were caught as they were mixing ``a witch's brew'' of bomb chemicals.
According to the government indictment, the men planned to blow up government buildings, such as the FBI headquarters and the United Nations, and the tunnels under the Hudson River.
One of the defendants in the case is Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Muslim fundamentalist cleric who the government believes was instrumental in inspiring the men with fiery anti-American rhetoric from a store-front mosque in Jersey City, N.J.
The main difference between the two trials is that in the second trial the government used an informant, Emad Salem, to alert them to the bombing threat and stopped the attacks beforehand. ``It will be claimed the guy is a liar - there is a different dynamic to that case,'' says Gerard Lynch, the former head of the criminal- enforcement division at the Department of Justice and now a professor at Columbia University.
Another difference is that many of the alleged conspirators were arrested as they were mixing the bomb chemicals. The defense may claim that the defendants were trapped, since Mr. Salem was working for the government and would get more money if his work led to arrests.
However, entrapment is a difficult defense because the government can then demonstrate that the defendants may have been predisposed to commit the crime anyway. ``Suppose people say they are mad about something but instead of a peaceful protest they decide to blow up a building and they ask the government agent `which building?' and he replies `the White House,' the fact that the target came from the government does not matter,'' explains Mr. Lynch.
The convictions in the World Trade Center case may also have a bearing on the other trial, making it more difficult to obtain an impartial jury. ``It will undoubtedly make it more difficult - the question is: `Will the judge be asked for a thorough and searching voir dire [examination of the proposed jurors]?' '' says Martin Adelman, a defense lawyer and past chairman of the New York State Bar Association's criminal-justice section.
Mary Jo White, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, joined other officials, including President Clinton, in proclaiming that the World Trade Center trial was a signal. ``Anyone who seeks to come into this country to practice terrorism will have the full weight of law enforcement brought against them,'' stated Mr. Clinton after the convictions were announced by the jury.
ONE of the major reasons for the guilty verdict is the enormous resources the government threw into the case. Hundreds of FBI agents combed through the rubble of the bombed-out World Trade Center garage. They pulled fingerprints off the pages of bomb manuals the terrorists had in their possession. They searched phone records, which showed how the men were linked. And, they found witnesses who had seen the men acquiring bomb materials as well as transporting them to the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.
``This is the kind of case the FBI does best,'' says Lynch. ``They have the ability to bring in a lot of people who can do hard, boring detail work that requires patience and yet have the expertise to present it as scientific evidence,'' he adds.
In fact, the circumstantial evidence was like a critical mass in convincing the jurors to convict the men on all 38 counts. The decision came after four full days of deliberation. The jurors mulled over thousands of pages of testimony from 207 prosecution witnesses and more than 1,000 exhibits. Found guilty were Nidal Ayyad, Mohammed Salameh, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmad Ajaj. The defendants all planned to appeal the verdict.
A lifelong jail term without parole is the prospect for the four men, who will be sentenced by Judge Kevin Duffy on May 4.
The prosecutors demonstrated during the trial how the men acquired the materials for a 1,200 pound bomb made with fertilizer and enhanced with nitroglycerin and compressed hydrogen. They built the bomb in a Jersey City apartment and planted it in a rented van in a garage under the twin towers. One of the defendants fled to Egypt, which extradited him to the US, and a second defendant planned to leave the day after he was arrested.
Terrorism expert Robert Kupperman says there are lessons to be learned from the trial.
``The first lesson is that using a fairly crude device, terrorists can create a giant problem,'' he explains. There is no doubt about that: The bomb killed six people, injured thousands, and cost nearly $550 million. One year later, parts of the building are still undergoing repairs.
Mr. Kupperman says the second lesson is that the US needs to constantly be in the intelligence business.
``If there are no acts of terrorism in the next six months and the government continues counterintelligence, there will be complaints. But, to not do it, invites the most serious of episodes,'' he says.