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Accused Bin Laden Terrorists Stand Trial

Aired May 17, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Three years ago, Osama bin Laden declared a jihad or a holy war against Americans, ordering his people to attack and kill U.S. citizens anywhere in the world. Now four men accused of being members of bin Laden's organization stand trial for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Will this trial bring the U.S. government closer to catching one of the FBI's most wanted men?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

A New York jury is in its fifth day of deliberations in the case of twin embassy bombings on August 7th, 1998. On trial: Khalfan Mohamed, charged with conspiracy in the Tanzania bombing. Also being tried for the Tanzania bombing, Wadih el Hage, a personal secretary for Osama bin Laden, who is charged with conspiracy and perjury; Mohamed al-'Owhali, who is charged with conspiracy in the bombing of the embassy in Kenya. And also facing conspiracy charges in the Kenya bombing, 36-year-old Mohamed Odeh.

So joining us to sort all this out, from outside the courthouse in New York, is Odeh's attorney, Edward Wilford. And joining us from Boston is terrorism expert Jessica Stern. Here in Washington, Joanie Jayjay (ph), terrorism analyst Peter Berger, and Benjamin Black (ph). In the back, Benjamin Pascal (ph), Bobbie Ware (ph) and Casey Comit (ph).

And also joining us from outside the U.S. district courthouse in New York is CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick.

Deborah, exactly what are these men charged with, and what is the status of the trial right now?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now the jury has been looking at evidence for the past five full days. They've asked for a number of documents, a number of interviews, specifically documents that detail Osama bin Laden's declared war against Americans. The four people who are on trial, all of them have been changed in a worldwide conspiracy to target Americans overseas and also to blow up different U.S. properties, in several cases specifically the U.S. embassies. Now, the charge against Mohamed Odeh, as you mentioned, was conspiracy, for plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy, this one in Nairobi, Kenya. Two hundred and thirteen people died there. Mohamed al-'Owhali also is charged with a direct role in that bombing. He's also charged with murder, 213 murders, one for each of the people who died in that blast. Khalfan Mohamed is the alleged Tanzania bomber. Prosecutors say that he helped murder 11 people who died in the bombing there. And Wadih el Hage, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and he is supposed to have lied to cover up the conspiracy. And not only that, prosecutors say that he got orders directly from Osama bin Laden to activate the east Africa cell.

All of these men in the courthouse right now. They're just behind the courtroom. And whenever the jury passes the judge a note, well, everybody's ushered into the courtroom so they can know just what the jury is thinking and what kind of evidence they want to see.

COSSACK: Deborah, the jurors have requested certain evidence to be read back. What can we tell about that, if anything, and what is that evidence centered around?

FEYERICK: Well, they have asked for loads of evidence to be presented. They wanted to see a model of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They wanted to see clothing which had residue of bomb material on it. They wanted to see a number of documents, FBI statements, specifically, that defendants gave to agents shortly after they were arrested. Defense attorneys wanted to get those statements tossed out because of incriminating statements contained therein, but the judge allowed them in.

So they've been asking for a lot of things. Clearly, it shows that they have paid attention throughout this whole trial because the nature of their questions are just so specific. And so several attorneys think that that's actually a good thing that they were really paying attention throughout this whole thing.

COSSACK: Deborah, it's a complex jury verdict, isn't it. I mean, in fact, they have to make some several hundred decisions, don't they.

FEYERICK: Absolutely. This is a 302-count indictment. However, because some of the counts apply to more than one defendant, the jury has to reach about 600 separate decisions before they even reach their verdict. So this is -- they've got a huge job ahead of them.

COSSACK: All right, joining us now is Ed Wilford, who is attorney for defendant Odeh.

Ed, your impressions of the trial, and particularly, your impressions of the jury in this case.

EDWARD WILFORD, MOHAMED SADEEK ODEH'S ATTORNEY: Well, I didn't quite hear what you said, but I do believe that you asked me about the jury. My impression of the jury in this case is that they are a very hard-working group of people who have listened intently and are, in fact, following Judge Sand's instructions. COSSACK: Ed, the judge recently made an order that allowed the defense attorneys for at least a couple of the defense in this case to get certain information regarding deals that the United States government or the U.S. attorney's office has made with informants in this case. What's that all about?

WILFORD: Well, actually, that deals with a couple of the defendants who are, in fact, facing the death penalty. My client is not facing the death penalty, so it really wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak directly to that issue. However, I will say that Judge Sand is trying to provide a balanced approach so that the people who are facing the death penalty will be afforded an opportunity to vigilantly and vigorously defend themselves.

COSSACK: Why -- and recognizing, Ed, that it doesn't have to do with your client -- your client is not facing the death penalty. But why would it be so important for the attorneys whose clients are facing the death penalty to receive the information about possible deals that the government made with informants?

I guess we have lot Ed.

Deborah? All right, I think we've lost New York. Let's go over to Peter now.

Peter, bail me out a little bit here in Washington. I know you can hear me. Let's talk a little bit about Osama bin Laden, who is supposed to be the mastermind behind these kinds of things. Why has he become the number-one terrorist?

PETER BERGEN, JOURNALIST: Well, I think by his actions. I mean, we know that the embassy bombings killed 224 people, among them 11 Americans. Those were the bombings in Africa -- in Kenya and Tanzania -- in 1998. He's a leading suspect in the USS Cole explosion, which was in Yemen in October, where 17 U.S. sailors were killed and half a million dollars of damage was done to one of the Navy's most advanced destroyers. So the United States government -- he's on the "10 Most Wanted" list. He is somebody that is regarded as being very serious. Obviously, his campaign of terrorism isn't going to stop because he's living in Afghanistan right now under the protection of the Taliban, which control the country, have made it perfectly clear that he'll never be turned over to the United States.

And one thing I'd just like to say about the trial. What's interesting -- the four people on trial, even by the most charitable standards, are either low or mid-level members of his organization. We don't know the verdict yet, but the evidence right now suggests these are not terribly important people. The people who actually run the organization, bin Laden himself and his military commander and his top advisers, are all in Afghanistan. Indeed, the U.S. government has said that the people who actually ran the Kenya and Tanzania operations are actually fugitives right now.

So while the trial has produced a great wealth of information about bin Laden and his organization, there are at least 15 people that the government has indicted in the case who aren't standing trial in New York right now.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back, let's talk some more about international terrorism, national terrorism, what we can do to protect ourselves and what it looks like in terms of eventually getting Osama bin Laden.

Stay with us.


Just 30 of California's 160,000 inmates have sought DNA testing under a new state law. None of the requests has been approved. Inmates are required to show a "reasonable probability" of a different verdict if DNA testing had been available at trial. About 20 states now have similar laws.



COSSACK: A New York jury is deliberating the verdicts in the trial of four men accused in the 1998 bombing of two embassies. Prosecutors claim the defendants are tied to Osama bin Laden, one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives. Now, CNN was served with two subpoenas in this case. Peter's interview with bin Laden, which had been published by CNN, was provided to the court in response to the first subpoena, which is a court order, before the trial and then played at the trial.

Now, more recently, CNN was served with a second subpoena. And CNN, we fought that subpoena on the grounds that producing information for a trial could and might jeopardize its reporters' physical safeties overseas, particularly in the Middle East, because safety is such an important issue. CNN was victorious in that battle,a and the second subpoena was quashed by the court.

And I want to point out once again a subpoena is a court order. You don't have much choice. You either turn material over or you go to court and ask the court to -- to what lawyers call "quash" the subpoena. And in the second subpoena, CNN was able to do that based on safety for its reporters, particularly, again, I want to stress, in the Middle East.

Jessica, I want to turn to you now for a second. Why are -- the marketing, so to speak, of terrorism has become much more sophisticated. Web sites we see and things like that. Tell us about that.

JESSICA STERN, TERRORISM EXPERT: The Internet has had a very large impact on terrorists' ability to mobilize recruits and also to fund-raise. Some of the groups that I'm studying are reporting that they're raising a tremendous amount of money internationally over the Internet.

COSSACK: And how are they doing that? STERN: Well, some of them actually print their -- the address of their bank and their bank account number and encourage sympathizers to send checks directly to their banks. And we -- I also know from having talked to a number of terrorist leaders that they're -- they report that they're getting a more sophisticated recruit by recruiting over the Internet than they used to from more traditional methods.

COSSACK: And tell us about the -- in the sense that the traditional methods -- in recruiting, who are the kind of people that they usually perhaps look to recruit?

STERN: Well, I've been visiting a number of madrases in Pakistan, and these kids go to religious schools where they're -- they receive mental training in jihad, and from there they're -- some of them are recruited to receive military training, often in Afghanistan. And they tend to be -- not all of them, but as a rule, they tend to be very, very poor kids where there isn't a lot of opportunity cost for their time. And they also tend to be fairly narrowly educated. So it's -- I see this as a tragedy, young men who are susceptible to the notion that they will be fulfilling their spiritual duty by carrying out acts of terrorism in part because they don't have other opportunities.

COSSACK: Peter, expand on that a little bit for me, the notion that they -- that people who are recruited to do acts of terrorism really are people that are recruited as people with -- with perhaps very little future other than acts of terrorism. Is that a correct way of saying it?

BERGEN: Well, let me return to some of the evidence we heard in the trial, which is -- I'm talking about the al-Qaeda, bin Laden's organization. As Jessica says, a lot of these people come to Pakistan, then Afghanistan. They go to training camps in Afghanistan.

We learned that these training camps, aside from the religious program that they have, have a very sophisticated military program. One of the witnesses in the trial talked about learning about C-3, C-4 and dynamite explosives, training on M-16 American rifles, uzi submachine guns, the Israel submachine gun, Russian AK-47 rifles. Also talked about learning about land minds, tank mines, anti- personnel mines.

One of the persons who testified at the trial said he lost 40 or 50 pounds during his training. So this is quite a rigorous type of training. This particular person I'm talking about happened to be -- he was kind of an unlikely recruit to bin Laden's organization since he is a -- he initially attended catering school in France, then was an illegal immigrant to Italy, probably a sort of a guy in a sort of set of dead-end jobs who suddenly gets the jihad bug.

So I think, you know, going to your point, a lot of these people are people who may not have really anything else in life to do, other than be adopted into this thing that gives them a reason for being.

COSSACK: Jessica, is it an effective way, in your opinion, to fight terrorism by, in a sense, executing or the possibility of executing some of these lower-level people? Is that -- is that a way that is effective, in your way -- in your mind?

STERN: Not at all. I think when it comes to sentencing international terrorists, we need to think about the foreign policy and -- implications and the implications for how terrorists mobilize. If we turn these young operatives into martyrs, that will be used by bin Laden's organization to mobilize more young men. I believe it would be counterproductive.

COSSACK: Well, then what -- what penalty should we impose, then?

STERN: Lock them up for life.

COSSACK: Do you -- do you oppose the prosecution of these people?

STERN: No, not at all. These people have done -- committed unspeakably horrible crimes. It's just that it's counterproductive for us to execute them. When we turn them into martyrs, we actually feed into the hands of our enemies. We give them material for mobilizing more young men.

COSSACK: Peter, what did we learn from this trial, if anything?

BERGEN: Well, I think we learned a number of kind of surprising things. One of the most interesting things to me is that -- we've focused on bin Laden's wealth. You know, he's supposed to have inherited $250 million from his family's construction business. Well, there was plenty of testimony in the trial which showed that they -- that his organization had severe cash flow problems. A number of witnesses were told that hey -- there was no money, that salaries would be cut. This is at the time he's living in Sudan, between '91 and '96.

What had happened is the Saudis revoked his citizenship, froze his assets, and suddenly there was a cash flow crisis. But a further point that can be made from that is money isn't that important in terms of terrorism. There's a famous estimate of the actual cost of the bombing of the World Trade Center building in Manhattan, estimated the total cost of that was $3,000. The kind of people who are attracted to bin Laden's standards are not mercenaries. They're volunteers. They don't really need a lot of money. So I think we also learned that -- that the money is a sort of a bit of a red herring.

But I think one other surprising thing we learned is that the United States government has a fair degree of success in getting informants inside bin Laden's organization, which is after all, a fairly kind of tough thing to penetrate. But at least three informants at the trial testified. There's another person who's done a plea bargain. And they've supplied a wealth of information about the inner workings of the organization.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back: The State Department issues a worldwide caution. But does it help you when you're outside the United States?

Stay with us.



Q: A former champion skier was arrested Tuesday for what 1978 crime?

A: Michael Lund was charged with conspiracy to import marijuana in a bust which netted $74 million worth of the drug 23 years ago.

Source: "The Seattle Post-Intelligencer"


COSSACK: As soon as jurors in the embassy bombing trial began deliberating a verdict last Friday, the State Department issued a warning for Americans. In what was described as a "worldwide caution," State Department officials said that U.S. government facilities remain on a heightened state of alert.

Jessica, what is a "worldwide caution," and what does that mean?

STERN: Well, actually, it's -- it's hard to know what people are supposed to do with that information. I suppose the State Department just feels perhaps morally obligated and perhaps legally obligated to issue this warning. But I think it's very important to bear in mind that terrorism doesn't actually kill that many Americans on a yearly basis. It's very, very frightening, but over 100 Americans die every day in car accidents. Nineteen Americans died in international terrorist incidents last year. So we do need to keep that in perspective.

COSSACK: All right, I want to go back to New York for a second and talk to Ed Wilford.

Ed, in terms of what we were -- what I was trying to talk to about earlier, when we got cut off -- the judge made an order that the United States and the prosecutor turn over this information regarding deals that the government had made with other informants. While I recognize it doesn't apply to your client, what are -- why is it important to the others to find out that information?

WILFORD: Well, what it does is it provides the defendants with an opportunity to make an argument in mitigation of the death penalty, based upon the fact that there are others equally culpable who are not facing the death penalty. And unless you know the breadth of people who are allegedly involved in conspiracy, what their role were and the fact of whether or not they received any type of deal from the government, you won't be able to make that argument effectively. And by providing that information, it allows the defendants to make that argument.

COSSACK: Deborah, in terms of specifics about each of these defendants, what can you tell us about them? FEYERICK: Well, one of them, Wadih el Hage, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His wife has been in the courtroom for the last five or six days, just waiting for a verdict. She's got -- the couple together, they've got seven kids. He is being held for conspiracy. The government says that basically he lied to cover up the conspiracy and then allowed it to continue.

The others, not that much is known about them. We know that one is a 36-year-old Jordanian. Another is from Saudi Arabia. And yet another is from Tanzania. All of them seem to have mobilized somewhere in Africa, and then they were all -- according to the prosecutors -- given roles as to who they were going to attack, who they were going to attack it. And according to prosecutors, that's exactly what they did when they bombed the U.S. embassies.

COSSACK: Peter, in terms of terrorism and trends, do we see any differing forms of terrorism, as opposed to what was happening five years ago or so?

BERGEN: Well, there's certainly a difference between -- in the '90s, we've seen a group of -- in the 1980s, you saw Middle Eastern groups, basically state-sponsored. You saw Iraq, Libya, Syria sponsoring organizations that did terrorism. With Osama bin Laden, you've got a private individual with somewhat deep pockets, who's managed to attract a lot of people that aren't affiliated with any governments.

One of the things we've seen in the trial is that a huge number of different nationalities have been attracted to bin Laden's group, whether they're from Asia, whether from the Middle East, and indeed, Americans, as we see with Wadih el Hage, who's just been mentioned.

So I think the big difference is, state-sponsored terrorism in the '70s and '80s, and now it's sort of a looser, transnational group, like bin Laden's, that doesn't owe allegiance to any particular state.

COSSACK: You think it's -- do you think that the FBI will ever be successful in getting bin Laden?

BERGEN: I doubt it. I mean, in terms of -- the strategies now to get bin Laden are either diplomatic, which I think have been somewhat exhausted because the Taliban that controls Afghanistan, where he is, have basically said, "We're never going to let him be extradited," or military. The military option would be kind of a blood bath, and the Pentagon is reluctant to take on missions where there are going to be certain U.S. casualties. So right now, I think there's a sort of a -- everybody's fought themselves into a kind of a status quo, where bin laden is safe in Afghanistan. His ability to function has been somewhat hampered by the law enforcement efforts. But he -- the likelihood of him showing up at the courtroom where Deborah Feyerick right now is, is very unlikely.

COSSACK: Is his popularity gaining in these -- in the Middle East, or is it beginning to wane?

BERGEN: I think that -- you know, in '98, when we sent -- the United States sent cruise missile attacks towards Afghanistan and Sudan, I think the United States government made a sort of a strategic error, which they turned him into an overnight celebrity. And basically, a lot of the focus of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world has come around this one man. I think he remains pretty popular. People call their sons Osama in Pakistan. There are lots of business called Osama, there's Osama that.

But I think that in the end, you know, 99.9 percent of Muslims reject the kind of violence that he is -- you know, that he's proposing.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": What's the American way: conserve or consume? Send your energy crunch e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 PM Eastern time.

And I'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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