4 charged in N.Y. blast are going on trial today Trade center bombing killed 6

September 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Under extraordinary security, the trial of four of the seven men charged in the bombing of the World Trade Center opens today in federal court in Manhattan, promising the first comprehensive picture of a crime that shook American complacency about terrorism.

After almost seven months of investigation, prosecutors have concluded that the plotters had sought to collapse a 110-story trade center tower, killing thousands.

The defendants -- Mahmud Abouhalima, 33, an Egyptian cabdriver, and three men with Palestinian roots, Ahmad M. Ajaj, 27, Nidal A. Ayyad, 25, and Mohammed Salameh, 25 -- contend that the charges are flawed by false identifications and that the ,, government is putting Islam on trial.

The case has spurred many questions: How did the scheme come together? Did the bombers act alone or with the help of a foreign power or international terrorist group? Why did they strike? The riddles may not be solved at the trial. But here is what has come to light on some of the key points.

Why the plotters picked the World Trade Center as a target and what they hoped to gain through the attack remains unclear. Some evidence suggests political motives, but lawyers close to the case say the plot was propelled by religious fervor. Some experts believe the trade center was chosen as a symbol of Western power. Others believe it was simply chosen at random from a list of possible targets.

Perhaps one of the most explicit pieces of evidence is a letter sent to the New York Times four days after the blast and signed by the Liberation Army Fifth Battalion that claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed six people. It said that unless the United States cut ties with Israel and met other demands involving Middle East policy, more attacks would follow.

The letter, which federal agents described as authentic, also claimed that "more than 150 suicidal soldiers" were ready to attack other U.S. targets.

Investigators said that by retrieving an erased computer file and comparing saliva samples, they were able to trace the letter to the personal computer of Mr. Ayyad, a Kuwaiti-born chemical engineer, who worked at Allied-Signal in Morristown, N.J.

Later in March, U.S. officials said they were given a report of an alleged confession by another defendant, Mr. Abouhalima, during his detention in Egypt.

Egyptian officials told the United States that Mr. Abouhalima had said that the blast was to punish the United States for meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Mr. Abouhalima, they said, told them that the plotting had been done in Afghanistan among veterans of the anti-Soviet war, that two self-described Iranian intelligence agents had approved the plan and that two Iraqis who disappeared before the explosion had aided in the crime.

Mr. Abouhalima also reportedly said that the plotters had been sent money collected by the militant Islamic Group, whose spiritual leader is Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the Muslim Brotherhood. They were also financed, the Egyptians say he told them, by Iranian businesses and Islamic institutions from Saudi Arabia and Europe.

Mr. Abouhalima was returned to U.S. custody March 24 and was found to have burn marks on his groin. He later disavowed making a confession, saying any statements were extracted under torture and were unreliable. They will not be introduced in the trial.

Nevertheless, the other two suspects in the case, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, 25, and Abdul Rahman Yasin, 33, are both missing and believed to have fled to Iraq. Federal officials have offered $2 million rewards for each of the fugitives. Another man, Bilal Alkaisi, 27, a Jordanian, is charged in the case, but was set aside for later trial.

Investigators, meanwhile, have tried to trace hints of international involvement through bank and telephone records.

But without more evidence, prosecutors are not expected to tie the attack to foreign sponsorship.

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