A first look inside ring of terrorists

Trial of suspects in embassy-bombings starts today in US.

Joel Nzioka keeps a photo of himself inside his desk in the cramped offices of Ufundi Co-operative Savings and Credit, but it's not a family portrait or joyous momento.

It shows Mr. Nzioka strapped to a stretcher, held by rescuers descending a steep ladder while a dozen hands reach upward to assist. In the background is a building ripped apart by a massive explosion.

It was taken Aug. 7, 1998, and Nzioka had spent six hours buried under the rubble. Terrorists had detonated bombs almost simultaneously outside the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The twin blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

That day, 47 people were working at the Ufundi branch next door to the US Embassy in Nairobi. Only seven survived, among them Nzioka.

He and thousands of other Kenyans will be closely watching the trial of four Embassy-bombing suspects scheduled to begin today in New York.

The trial will test the prosecution's claims that the bombings were part of a global terrorist conspiracy, masterminded by Osama bin Laden, to push the United States and its allies out of the Middle East by killing Americans around the world.

The trial will also give the public its first look inside Mr. Bin Laden's organization, as much of the evidence against the accused has until now been kept secret from all but the prosecution and defense in an attempt not to hinder the ongoing investigation.

The four suspects on trial are among 22 people indicted in connection with the bombings, including Saudi-born millionaire Bin Laden, one of the FBI's 10 most wanted. Those on trial are:

* Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, a Yemeni national who allegedly rode to the US Embassy in Nairobi with the suicide bomber in an explosive-filled pickup truck. He was arrested in a local hotel five days after the blast and reportedly confessed his involvement to the FBI.

* Mohammed Sadeek Odeh, a Jordanian charged with planning and carrying out the Nairobi bombing.

* Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a Tanzanian. He was arrested in South Africa in October 1999, and is the only suspect facing trial for the Dar es Salaam blast.

* Wadih El-Hage, former personal secretary to Bin Laden, a father of seven, and a naturalized American. He was recently declared fit to stand trial despite claims that he believes he is a teenager and the year is 1978. He is charged with conspiracy, but not with having any direct role in the bombings.

The US is seeking the death penalty against Mr. al-'Owhali and Mr. Mohamed, making this the first US capital punishment case involving overseas terrorism.

The US Embassy bombings prompted a massive international investigation, including more than 1,000 interviews, the largest-ever deployment of FBI officers abroad, and rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of the fugitive suspects.

One of the others indicted - Egyptian born Ali Mohamed, a former US Army sergeant - pleaded guilty in October to five counts of conspiracy to kill Americans and US military personnel. He has yet to be sentenced, but is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution and will likely see a reduced sentence as part of a plea-bargain arrangement. He told US district judge Leonard Sand during his guilty plea hearing that he photographed the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and showed the pictures to Bin Laden.

Another suspect being held in New York, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, was also due to be tried today. But his case was split from the others after he allegedly stabbed a jail guard on Nov.1, during what authorities say was an escape attempt.

Three other indicted suspects are in custody in Britain, awaiting extradition. Thirteen others remain at large, including Bin Laden. US authorities say he is being sheltered by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and name him as a suspect in the Oct. 12 bomb attack in Yemen that killed 17 sailors on the USS Cole.

A federal grand jury began investigating Bin Laden and his group, al-Qaeda, back in 1996, two years before the Embassies were bombed. In September 1997, Mr. El-Hage testified about his meetings with Bin Laden and his links to Kenya.

The prosecution alleges that al-Qaeda trained Somali militia who fought a fierce battle with American troops in October 1993, killing 18 US soldiers. The indictment says the conspiracy to bomb the Embassies in East African began soon after that.

The Nairobi blast was by far the deadlier of the two, killing 212 and injuring more than 4,600. And although the US was the target, Kenyan citizens suffered the most. More than 3,000 survivors are suing the US government for compensation, claiming negligence in the face of warnings that the Embassy was vulnerable to attack.

Washington has authorized some $37 million for reconstruction and rehabilitation programs in Kenya. The US Agency for International Development's bomb response unit has arranged for a variety of services to injured survivors and victims' families, such as medical care, counseling, and vocational training.

Says Shannon Lovgren, the unit's coordinator: "In my experience, the survivors' attitude towards the accused is one of forgiveness. They say that they are angry, but that they forgive the terrorists."

Nzioka is not among them. He believes the accused persons are guilty and wants the death penalty imposed. "I expect to see justice," he said. If they can get this man they call Osama bin Laden, that would be very good."

Nzioka's wife thought he was dead when she couldn't find him in Nairobi hospitals the day of the blast. She and other relatives were searching the morgue when word came to them that he was alive. He returned to work as a loan officer four weeks after the bombing, bitter about his dead colleagues and angry that anyone would launch such an attack on innocent people. "From that experience, you can't be the same again."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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