From Bombing to Conspiracy

August 28, 1993

The Justice Department has put its indictment where its leaks and hints have been by indicting 15 defendants, including Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, for a conspiracy "to levy a war of urban terrorism against the United States."

That's what it always sounded like, but not where the Justice Department was heading -- until now -- with investigations into the World Trade Center bombing in February and a plot to make further explosions in New York in June. In that sense, most Americans are probably reassured by this grand jury action.

The decision by Attorney General Janet Reno will be a profound courtroom challenge. It will lead to an international show trial, whether she seeks that effect or not. The character of American law and justice will be on trial before the world.

What will seem like pressure on the prosecution to win is better interpreted as pressure to show that it was right to bring the case, pressure for a fair trial, pressure against a circus.

The hostile parts of the Islamic and Arab world will be watching, eager to cry sham. The friendly parts of the Islamic and Arab world will be watching, eager to see American resolve to crush the U.S.-based part of a movement that threatens them. American Muslims will be watching, some of them suspecting that this is religious persecution. The world must be shown that it is not.

Much will turn on what Sheik Abdel-Rahman meant when he spoke to his followers in the alleged conspiracy and what they understood him to mean. Much of this will rest on the credibility of a witness, Emad Ali Salem, who taped defendants while serving the FBI as an informer. The defense will attack him as an agent provocateur and the true author of any conspiracy.

It is known that Ms. Reno first resisted charging Sheik Abdel-Rahman in the New York World Trade Center bombing, despite pressure to do so, and then approved including him as a defendant in a broader conspiracy proceeding.

The Justice Department must work out a priority between trying Sheik Abdel-Rahman in New York or extraditing him to Egypt, for retrial on charges growing from 1989 riots for which he was once acquitted. Egypt, which seemed reluctant earlier to receive him, though even more reluctant to allow him free in a third country, now wants him back. Ms. Reno appears qualified by experience and temperament to handle the difficult choices and burdens of this prosecution.

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