Embassy bombings witness cross-examined
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A former associate of Osama bin Laden testified Monday that he was not aware of accused terrorist Wadih el Hage ever taking a loyalty oath to bin Laden's group, al Qaeda. However, the witness also said bin Laden knew el Hage well and considered him trustworthy.
El Hage is one of four men on trial for a conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property that culminated in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks federal prosecutors charge were executed by al Qaeda.
L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a government witness under cross-examination by el Hage's attorney, told the court that some people who worked for bin Laden's companies were not members of al Qaeda. El Hage's defense attorney, Sam Schmidt, has said that his client worked for bin Laden's legitimate commercial interests and did not participate in any violent activity.
Kherchtou said he especially got to know el Hage when they shared a hotel room and then a house in Kenya starting in the fall of 1994. Kherchtou moved to Kenya to undergo pilot training for al Qaeda and to assist members making trips to Somalia. El Hage worked for two humanitarian relief agencies in Nairobi.
Since 1992, Kherchtou said, al Qaeda members had been using Nairobi as a transit station from their Khartoum, Sudan, headquarters to Somalia, a Muslim country then plunging into civil unrest. The indictment charges that it was Somali tribes trained by bin Laden who killed U.S. Army Rangers in an October 1993 firefight after United Nations and U.S. forces intervened in Somalia.
Widows of two helicopter pilots who were among the fatalities, Ray Frank and Cliff Wolcott, sat in the second row of the court's gallery listening to testimony on Monday.
Kherchtou, 36, a Moroccan who says he broke with bin Laden in 1996, has linked el Hage and co-defendant Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, saying that the alleged conspirators knew each other in Kenya and that Odeh was among those al Qaeda members who went to Somalia. He said Monday that bin Laden trusted el Hage.
But under cross-examination by Odeh's attorney, Edward Wilford, Kherchtou conceded that al Qaeda members did not always obey bin Laden's religious decrees and that members' goals were not always in sync with the leader's, especially after bin Laden moved in a "more radical direction."
Wilford asked if members "openly disagreed with bin Laden and each other?"
"Sometimes, yes," Kherchtou said.
Kherchtou agreed with Wilford that many al Qaeda members would feel that "killing of children, women, and innocent civilians is not Islamically correct."
If bin Laden issued a fatwah, or religious decree, to that effect, Wilford asked, "You wouldn't be a part of it, correct?"
"That's true," Kherchtou said.
"And there were many other members who would not have accepted any such fatwah?," Wilford asked.
"Everyone would look into his faith," Kherchtou said.
Bin Laden issued a 1996 fatwah calling on Muslims to attack American troops in part for their continued presence in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Muslim shrines in Mecca and Medina. The government has introduced the statement as evidence but has yet to introduce bin Laden's 1998 fatwah, which targeted American civilians, too.
Odeh's attorneys have conceded their client had an association with bin Laden, but they maintain that does not mean he endorsed or participated any violent activity.
Kherchtou said Odeh worked on a fishing boat near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa "to support himself and others." The government has alleged the fishing business was a front for al Qaeda.
Kherchtou testified he did not know the other al Qaeda defector who has testified in the trial, Jamal Al-Fadl, and could not identify him in a photograph.
While Al-Fadl testified that bin Laden used a Sudan farm for military training exercises, Kherchtou said he never saw that type of activity there. Instead, bin Laden rode horses there on Fridays and his men played soccer there, Kherchtou said.
Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, objecting to this idyllic depiction, told Judge Leonard Sand that one of the men who played soccer there later "blew up the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad," Pakistan. The jury was not in the courtroom for that remark.
Attorneys for the other two defendants, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali and Khalfan Khamis Momahed, will cross examine Kherchtou on Tuesday.
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