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Embassy bombings trial revealed bin Laden links

By Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A lot of what the U.S. government knows about Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization was revealed earlier this year in federal court during the embassy bombings trial here.

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Bin Laden was accused of masterminding the 1998 suicide truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured more than 4,000.

A federal jury in May convicted four of bin Laden's followers of participating in a worldwide terrorist conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property, and it convicted three of the men of carrying out the dual attacks. Bin Laden remains the lead defendant and fugitive in the case.

Perhaps the most intriguing clue from the trial that may be related to the September 11 attacks is testimony by government witnesses that revealed al Qaeda's interest in pilot training.

Former al Qaeda insider L'Houssaine Kherchtou testified about becoming an al Qaeda pilot for the East Africa cell.

Mujahedeen veteran Essam al-Ridi, an Egyptian who trained at the Boardman Flight School in Texas, testified he purchased a private plane for bin Laden, but he rejected his job offer to become al Qaeda's pilot.

Bin Laden then turned to Ihab Ali, an American from Orlando, Florida, to become a pilot.

Ali, who has been in federal custody for two years, obtained his license after training at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, where material witness Zacharias Moussaoui took lessons and which Mohamed Atta, suspected as the organizer of the September 11 attacks, visited for his.

The trial also revealed an al Qaeda operative known as "Sheik Sayid" as being one of the people who controlled the group's finances, according to Kherchtou's testimony. Sheik Sayid is now reported to be the finance chairman of al Qaeda and the man suspected of wiring money from Pakistan to Mohamed Atta.

Bin Laden's secretary

The man convicted in the embassy bombings trial with probably the most links to the current investigation is Wadih el Hage, a 41-year-old naturalized American from Lebanon.

El Hage, a bin Laden acquaintance dating to the mujahedeen struggle against Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, was bin Laden's personal secretary when his organization was based in Sudan and later became a key facilitator of his East Africa cell, living in Nairobi from 1994 to 1997.

As a cover to generate income, el Hage ran a relief agency called "Help Africa People" and engaged in trading schemes involving gemstones, ostriches and more.

One el Hage business card, for his "Anhar Trading Co.," listed two addresses -- his former home address in Arlington, Texas, and a second address in Hamburg, Germany, which matches the home address of Marmoun Darkazanli, a Syrian national who has lived in Germany since 1985.

Darkazanli lived on the second floor of the modest apartment building where he had registered his own company that exported machinery and industrial equipment. Darkazanli's phone number and a Deutsche Bank account were also in a leather address book confiscated in a 1997 raid of el Hage's home.

Darkazanli's Import-Export Co. is the only private business on the first list of 27 groups whose assets President Bush froze on September 24.

Hamburg has been at the center of the September 11 investigation because three suspected hijackers lived there -- Mohamed Atta and fellow pilots Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrahi.

Darkazanli admitted knowing the men but denied any connection to terrorism. German police searched his apartment last month and questioned him but did not keep him in custody. He has been seen walking around Hamburg as recently as last weekend.

Darkazanli did business with Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, the highest-ranking bin Laden associate in U.S. custody, who is awaiting trial on terrorism conspiracy charges.

In Sudan, Salim once ran Wadi Aqiq, bin Laden's umbrella company, and was engaged in al Qaeda military activities, according to federal prosecutors.

Salim claimed he left the group in the mid-1990s and was trying to establish an Arabic language religious radio stations in Sudan, Cyprus and Germany. In that period, Darkazanli opened a bank account for Salim in 1995. Salim was arrested in Germany three years later.

USS Cole connection

Trial evidence also indicated a connection to the October 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the American warship USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, for which bin Laden and al Qaeda are also the prime suspects.

In information released to British Parliament on October 4, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mohamed al-'Owhali, convicted in bombing of the embassy in Kenya, "has identified the two commanders of the attack on the USS Cole as having participated in the planning and preparation for East African embassy bombings."

According to trial evidence, al-'Owhali told the FBI in summer 1998 that an al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan named "Khallad" gave him his mission -- bombing the embassy in Kenya -- and dispatched him to a Nairobi rendezvous with cell leaders for more details.

Al-'Owhali, a 24-year-old Saudi, helped prepare the explosives and rode in the passenger seat of the bomb truck on August 7, 1998, in order to maneuver the vehicle as close to the embassy as possible.

"He described Khallad to be someone in his 20s from Saudi Arabia but that's all, that's about all the description he gave me," testified FBI agent Stephen Gaudin about his interrogation of al-'Owhali.

"Al-'Owhali explained to me that Khallad told him that the mission was going to be a martyrdom operation," Gaudin said.

One source familiar with the FBI investigations said Khallad is a nickname for Tawfiq al-Atash, one of the suspected commanders of the Cole attack and the same man captured on Malaysian security tape earlier this year as he met with suspected hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi at a Kuala Lumpur hotel.

The al-Atash family is a prominent Saudi family, and Tawfiq, having fled to Yemen, is now living in Saudi Arabia, the source said.

Al-'Owhali told agent Gaudin in summer 1998 he had "blue chip" information about a pending attack in Yemen. An attempt to bomb the Cole failed in January 2000 when an explosive-laden skiff sank. The successful attack came 10 months later.

The Kenya bomb truck's driver -- a friend of al-'Owhali's named Gihad Ali, nicknamed "Azzam" -- died when the bomb detonated.

As CNN has previously reported, Azzam, a 21-year-old Saudi, was a cousin of suspected Cole attack planner Mohamed Omar al-Harazi, a Saudi national of Yemeni origin who is an explosives expert.


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