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Al-Zawahiri faces single set of U.S. charges

From Phil Hirschkorn

Ayman al-Zawahiri is charged in connection to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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• People in the News:  Making of a terrorist mastermind
• CNN Special Report:  The U.S. Embassy Bombings Trial (includes indictment and other documents)
September 11 attacks
Mary Jo White
Osama Bin Laden

NEW YORK (CNN) -- While linked to terrorist attacks in the Middle East, the United States and elsewhere, Ayman al-Zawahiri faces only one known set of U.S. criminal charges -- related to his alleged role in the August 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.

Al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, is charged with the murders of all 224 victims killed in the coordinated truck bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

He also faces charges as part of al Qaeda's terrorism conspiracy, led by Osama bin Laden, to kill Americans. The entire indictment is pending in a federal court in New York.

The embassy attacks occurred six months after bin Laden and al-Zawahiri formally forged their alliance by merging their two terrorist organizations -- bin Laden's al Qaeda and al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Together they issued a fatwa, or edict, urging Muslims to "kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military."

"He has decided that the way to be most effective is to attack Americans and in particular American civilians," said Mary Jo White, who as U.S. attorney in New York at the time directed the prosecution of the embassy bombings case. "There's no more higher value [target] than him."

A medical doctor, al-Zawahiri began as a teenager working with Islamic fundamentalists targeting top Egyptian officials.

He served three years in prison -- technically, on weapons charges -- after Egyptian Islamic Jihad members assassinated President Anwar Sadat at a 1981 military parade.

Government officials later tied Egyptian Islamic Jihad to a failed attempt to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a 1995 suicide bombing at the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan, two acts prosecutors believe were financed by bin Laden.

An Egyptian court later convicted and sentenced al-Zawahiri to death, in absentia, for the suicide bombing and other attacks.

Three days before the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, on August 4, 1998, an Arabic newspaper published a statement credited to Egyptian Islamic Jihad that threatened "to retaliate against America for its claimed involvement in the apprehension of Egyptian Islamic Jihad members."

A number of Egyptian Islamic Jihad members plotting an attack in Albania had been rounded up and sent back to Egypt to face trial.

On June 16, 1999, al-Zawahiri was indicted in the Southern District of New York in connection with the embassy bombings.

If captured and convicted in the United States, al-Zawahiri could face the death penalty.

Lewis Schiliro, who headed the FBI's New York office in its investigation of the embassy attacks, said coordinated attacks such as the embassy bombings, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and last week's train bombings in Spain are signatures of Egyptian Islamic Jihad strategy.

With $25 million being offered for information leading to his capture, seizing or killing al-Zawahiri would be a "tactical and psychological blow" to al Qaeda, Schiliro said.

"He is the probably the closest adviser to bin Laden. If you find him, you are probably not too far the other guy," he said.

CNN's Justine Redman contributed to this story.

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