Prosecution uses bin Laden interview in embassy bombings trial
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden's historic hour-long interview with CNN was played Wednesday for the jury deciding whether four men are part of an alleged decade-long conspiracy led by the Saudi expatriate and aimed at killing Americans and destroying U.S. property abroad.
The government offered the March 20, 1997, interview as an exhibit in the trial of the four, who are accused in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured thousands. Bin Laden is the alleged mastermind behind the bombings.
"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.
The interview, bin Laden's first sit-down with a Western TV journalist, followed his August 1996 fatwah, or religious decree, to kill U.S. military personnel. Last week, the government read bin Laden's fatwah as evidence of his intent to kill Americans.
At the time of the CNN interview, bin Laden said American 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 resulted from American support for Israel, which occupied the lands claimed as Palestinian homelands, and American troops' presence in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest shrines of Islam, 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 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, 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 U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted list, has been living in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden first made a name for himself there by joining Islamic militants of the mujahadeen, 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 and 1996 car bombings at U.S. military buildings in Riyadh and Dharan, Saudi Arabia, that killed more than 20 people, including U.S. airmen.
"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 18 Army rangers died in an October 1993 ambush. He did not claim responsibility for the action. The present indictment accuses bin Laden and his associates of training the men who carried out the attack.
Throughout the interview, bin Laden positioned himself as a leader for many of the worlds' 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."
Wadih el Hage, one of the four men now on trial, has said he was not aware of bin Laden's threats against the United States until he saw the CNN interview. El Hage, 40, a Lebanese-born American, acknowledges working for bin Laden's companies when they were based in the Sudan in the early 1990s, but denies any role in violence.
Prosecutors allege el Hage had an instrumental role in establishing bin Laden's terrorist cell in Kenya. On August 21, 1997, Kenyan police directed by the FBI raided el Hage's Nairobi residence. The FBI agent who led the raid testified on Wednesday that el Hage's personal computers and planning diaries were among the items confiscated in the raid.
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