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U.S. questions al Qaeda witness seeking reduced sentence

Salim, left, in an April court appearance.
Salim, left, in an April court appearance.  

From Phil Hirschkorn

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors will question an alleged former high-ranking associate of Osama bin Laden in Manhattan federal court Monday, as that man seeks to avoid a life sentence for stabbing and severely wounding a jail guard.

Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, 45, from Sudan, pleaded guilty in April to the November 2000 stabbing of officer Louis Pepe inside the Manhattan Corrections Center, where Salim has been detained on terrorism charges for almost four years.

Salim was arrested in Germany after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa carried about by al Qaeda. He allegedly co-founded al Qaeda and once managed its businesses and training camps.

Salim faces a 14- to 17-year sentence for the attempted murder of Pepe. But he could face a life sentence if prosecutors can show that the stabbing was connected to terrorism.

The government has alleged the assault was part of plot to take hostages and compel the release of prisoners in U.S. custody.


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Last week, Salim denied those accusations, saying he stabbed Pepe only to steal his keys, use them to enter a locked room, and hurt two former defense attorneys who were waiting for him -- attorneys he had tried to fire.

"I lost every hope to change these lawyers, and I had only one recourse, which was to attack them physically, and in that instance, they would be resigning," Salim said.

Testifying in English and in Arabic with the aid of an interpreter, Salim said he was dissatisfied with the representation of his court-appointed attorneys. Salim said he had written to the trial judge, Leonard Sand, seeking their replacement to no avail.

Salim said that he had discussed his plan "in general terms" with three other men who were awaiting trial for the embassy bombings: Mohamed Odeh, Mohamed al-'Owhali, and Khalfan Mohamed. In particular, he tried to recruit Odeh but he "did not agree to participate," Salim said.

Salim said he had known the fourth defendant, Wadih el Hage, for 10 years. El Hage was bin Laden's personal secretary and facilitated his African terrorist cell, but his withered arm precluded his participation in any assault.

The Pepe assault occurred at a time when the five defendants were permitted to bunk together in pairs in the MCC's high-security wing, a concession to complaints about their harsh conditions of incarceration.

According to Salim, the guards at that time allowed terrorist suspects to leave their cells without handcuffs about one-third of the time.

Salim said his cellmate, Khalfan Mohamed, agreed to help him steal Pepe's keys, swipe the guard's radio and hold him down on Salim's cue.

"I don't want to harm you, I only need the keys," Salim recalled saying to Pepe. Salim punched him in the legs and sprayed hot sauce in his eyes, but couldn't grab the keys.

"I became crazy," Salim said. Then he rammed a sharpened comb into Pepe's left eye, penetrating three inches into his skull. Salim had bought the comb in the jail commissary and sharpened it out of the view of the cell security camera.

"I will give you the key, I will give you the key," Pepe yelled, Salim said.

Pepe was blinded in that eye, lost half of his sight in his right eye, and suffered brain damage -- he is unable to speak clearly or testify about the attack.

A stunned Mohamed fled. "He did not want any part of this," Salim said. Within minutes, jail guards had subdued Mohamed and Salim.

Salim denied Friday that the assault was a plot to take hostages. He never made demands to his jailers.

"His actual motivation that day was to attack his attorneys, not take hostages," said Richard Lind, Salim's current attorney.

However, FBI agents found threatening notes in Salim's cell that bore his fingerprints. "We are the Muslims who were falsly (sic) accused of bombing the embassy in Africa," said one. "We have captured the tenth flr. in MCC and we have several lawyers and officials...If the government worrys (sic) about the safty (sic) of its citizines (sic) it has to comply with all our demands," the note continued.

Salim said the note was written months earlier, and reflected merely "exchanging ideas" with Odeh, who helped him write it.

"What do you think of getting hold of some people, detaining them, and that way we can get the release of anyone we want," Salim recalled saying to Odeh in June 2000.

FBI agents also found a newspaper map with Salim's doodlings indicating a route to midtown Manhattan. Salim said he considered escaping to the United Nations and declaring refugee status.

"I started to think I was innocent, and I should return to my family and children," Salim said.

The pre-sentencing hearing is expected to conclude Monday before U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts, who has not set a sentencing date.

Prosecutors say Salim, an electrical engineer educated in Iraq, ran al Qaeda's financial affairs when bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early 1990s. He managed Wadi Aqiq, bin Laden's umbrella company that prosecutors allege procured communications equipment and conventional weapons.

Salim said he cut ties with bin Laden in the mid-1990s, moved his family to Dubai and launched Arabic religious radio stations in Sudan, Cyprus and Germany.

German investigators arrested Salim in September 1998 and extradited him after U.S. prosecutors guaranteed he would not face the death penalty.




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