NEW YORK -- A conversation secretly recorded by an FBI informant provides new insight to the difficult legal fight facing federal prosecutors who hope to convict the controversial Muslim cleric charged with approving a plot to bomb New York City landmarks.
In a government transcript obtained by New York Newsday yesterday, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman is quoted as saying that he would "prefer to stay away" from any violence.
The comments, taped by informant Emad Salem, are the strongest publicly disclosed defense evidence yet for Sheik Rahman, the spiritual leader of 13 Islamic militants scheduled for trial in December.
The 1993 transcript represents at least the second time that Mr. Salem's attempts to tape Sheik Rahman making self-incriminating statements ended with decidedly mixed results.
Law-enforcement sources said federal prosecutors' strategy will be to argue that many of the cleric's secretly taped statements were cautious remarks carefully calculated to distance himself from the alleged plot and avoid arrest.
Citing a court-secrecy order, federal prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to comment on the transcript.
However, one investigator familiar with details of the conspiracy case acknowledged that the newly disclosed statement may undermine efforts to convict Sheik Rahman.
Sheik Rahman, 56, is a blind Egyptian cleric and the spiritual leader for at least two of the four Islamic fundamentalists convicted in the February, 1993, World Trade Center bombing.
He is accused of approving a plot to overthrow the U.S. government by approving plans to bomb the United Nations, the Hudson River commuter tunnels and other New York City targets.
The transcript details a May 30, 1993, conversation at Brooklyn's Abu Bakr mosque.
After co-defendant Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali apparently raised the alleged plot, the transcript quotes Sheik Rahman as cutting off discussion of the subject.
"We, the sheiks, should stay as a front . . . for all the Muslims, and away from these matters . . . and never talk in it, even with me," Sheik Rahman said.
As the conversation continued, Sheik Rahman instructed Mr. Salem, saying, "I told Siddig to tell you that I don't want anyone to present to me any subject of this kind."
Later, Sheik Rahman added, "So, Allah may protect you, please, I prefer to stay away."
Mr. Salem recorded the exchange one week after he used an indirect reference to ask Sheik Rahman whether an attack against the United Nations would be forbidden under Islam.
"It is not forbidden, but it will put Muslims in a bad light. The U.N. is not a force for pressure. It will hurt Islam before the U.N.," Sheik Rahman said, according to another prosecution transcript.
Although large parts of the exchanges appear to support Sheik Rahman, other sections are ambiguous.
For instance, the May 30 transcript shows that Mr. Siddig Ali tried to win Sheik Rahman's approval for an unspecified action that prosecutors contend was the bomb plot.
The trial of the sheik and others charged in the plot to blow up New York City landmarks is scheduled to start Dec. 5.