Bin Laden the focus of embassy bombing trial
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A new prosecution witness on Wednesday described the work that two defendants did for Osama bin Laden's group, al Qaeda, in the years leading up to the dual 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.
The witness, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, was the first to identify defendant Mohamed Sadeek Odeh in open court and link him to bin Laden and his Islamic militant organization, al Qaeda.
Odeh is one of four men standing trial in federal court for participating in an alleged decade-long conspiracy aimed at killing Americans and destroying U.S. property abroad.
The government has indicted bin Laden, a Saudi expatriate, accusing him of masterminding the conspiracy and the embassy attacks that killed 224 people and injured thousands more.
Odeh trained at al Qaeda's military camps in Afghanistan and was among those who traveled to Somalia to help Islamic factions opposed to United Nations intervention there in 1993, according to Kherchtou, who testified he is a former al Qaeda member.
Conspiracy charge alleges Sudan ambush
The conspiracy charges against bin Laden and his followers allege that they trained men who ambushed U.S. troops participating in the U.N. mission; 18 Army rangers died in combat an October 1993.
Kherchtou said he knew Odeh by the alias of "Marwan" when they trained together and that Odeh himself became a trainer, though the witness could specify Odeh's specialty.
Kherchtou, a 36-year-old Moroccan, testified he joined al Qaeda in 1991 and worked for it in Kenya. He described defendant Wadih el Hage as the operative who oversaw the group's Kenya offices around 1994 and 1995.
Earlier, an hour-long interview with bin Laden shot by CNN was played for the jury. The government offered the March 20, 1997 interview -- his first TV interview with Western media -- which was prompted by bin Laden's August 1996 fatwah, or religious decree, to kill U.S. military personnel.
Last week prosecutors read aloud in court bin Laden's fatwah as evidence of his intent to kill Americans.
"We declared jihad against the U.S. government, because the U.S. government is unjust, criminal, and tyrannical," bin Laden told interviewer Peter Arnett, a former CNN correspondent.
Arnett's original report, produced by Peter Bergen, was first broadcast on CNN on May 10, 1997.
Bin Laden in 1997: civilians not targeted
At the time, bin Laden said Americans civilians were not targeted. But a 1998 fatwah did set his sights on killing U.S. civilians, prosecutors allege.
Arnett's questions, in English, were translated into Arabic and answered by bin Laden in Arabic.
Bin Laden's answers appeared with scrolling subtitles on playback screens in court.
Bin Laden told CNN his jihad, or holy war, resulted from American support for Israel, which occupies areas claimed as Palestinian homelands, and American troop presence in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest shrines of Islam, in Mecca and Medina.
"It is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country," bin Laden said.
Americans troops, as part of Operation Desert Shield, arrived in the Saudi kingdom with its permission on August 7, 1990, to guard against further Iraqi aggression after it invaded Kuwait. The embassy bombings, allegedly masterminded by bin Laden, occurred exactly eight years later.
"By being loyal to the U.S. regime, the Saudi regime has committed an act against Islam," bin Laden told CNN.
Bin Laden disavowed by his family
Bin Laden, son of a billionaire who ran the largest construction company in the Arab world, was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 and has been disavowed by his family.
Since 1996, bin Laden, on the FBI's most wanted list, has been living in Afghanistan. Bin Laden first made a name for himself there by joining Islamic militants of the mujahedeen, the Afghan resistance to Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
Bin Laden told CNN that his chief contribution was building roads, tunnels, storage facilities, and a hospital.
In the CNN interview, bin Laden praised as "heroes" the men behind the 1995-96 car bombings at U.S. military buildings in Riyadh and Dharan, Saudi Arabia, that killed more than 20 people, including U.S. airmen. But he denied involvement.
"I have great respect for the people who did this action," bin Laden told CNN.
"What they did is a great job and a big honor I missed participating in."
He referred to a U.S. "defeat " in Somalia, where the U.S. troops died, but did not claim responsibility for the action.
Throughout the interview, bin Laden positioned himself as a leader for many of the world's 1.25 billion Muslims, from the Middle East to Bosnia, Chechnya, and Tajikistan.
Bin Laden said the U.S. "wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us based not on what God has revealed." He added, "If American presence continues, then it is natural for reactions to continue against this."
El Hage has said he was not aware of bin Laden's threats against the United States until he saw the CNN interview. A 40-year-old Lebanese-born American, El Hage has acknowledged working for bin Laden's companies when they were based in Sudan in the early 1990s, but he denies any role in violence, his lawyers have said.
Prosecutors allege el Hage had an instrumental role in establishing bin Laden's terrorist cell in Kenya in the mid-1990's and that el Hage's ventures in Kenya, where he lived from 1995 to 1997, were fronts for al Qaeda.
FBI agent Daniel Coleman testified on Wednesday that he directed an August 21, 1997 Kenyan police raid on el Hage's Nairobi residence.
El Hage's personal computer and discs, business card collection, and planning diary were among the items confiscated and entered into evidence.
Kherchtou, who followed Coleman, will be on the stand when the trial resumes Thursday at 10am ET.
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