Trial of suspects in plot to bomb N.Y. starts today

January 09, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- "May God bless you, Sheik! . . . Boom! This will drive the whole world crazy!"

The sentences, picked up on a hidden microphone just after a bomb timer was successfully tested -- stand at the heart of the government's case in a terrorism trial that starts today.

Government lawyers charge that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 of his followers conspired to bomb targets that included the United Nations, the FBI headquarters in Manhattan and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, which are usually crowded with commuters.

Prosecutors also allege that some of the defendants participated in the earlier assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, as a prelude to wider violence that included bombing the World Trade Center and plotting to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to New York.

The reason: "To the Jihad organization, the United States, Egypt and Israel are simply different parts of a single enemy on whom they are obliged to wage war," government lawyers charge in court papers.

What is likely to emerge during months of testimony in the federal courthouse at Manhattan's Foley Square is a portrait of a terrorist cell, fueled by religious fanaticism and hatred of the United States, Israel and Mr. Mubarak's regime.

Unlike last year's trade center bombing trial in which four of the sheik's followers were convicted largely on forensic evidence, jurors will see FBI videotapes of some of the defendants mixing explosives, hear about scouting trips to potential bomb sites -- including the tunnels and New York's predominantly Jewish diamond district -- and learn that the accused constantly feared that their phones and meetings were monitored by authorities.

"We do something, we get caught," lamented one defendant in a conversation that turned out to be secretly recorded.

The government's case rests heavily on testimony from a former Egyptian army commando and intelligence operative, Emad Ali Salem, who infiltrated the alleged conspiracy and who served as adviser and bodyguard to Sheik Abdel Rahman, the principal defendant.

According to court papers, prosecutors will try to show that Sheik Abdel Rahman was the spiritual leader of an organization of "radical Islamic extremists" with members in California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Michigan and other states.

Prosecutors allege that Sheik Abdel Rahman directed that all members should prepare for "jihad," or holy war, against the West through paramilitary training for terrorist acts.

To show motive, the government is prepared to cite some of the sheik's sermons as well as conversations recorded by Mr. Salem.

Long before the current case developed, prosectors say, Sheik Abdel Rahman told followers in a 1991 question-and-answer session in Los Angeles that "we have to be terrorists."

These and other remarks will contrast directly with the defense contention that the 56-year-old blind Islamic cleric, who suffers from heart disease and diabetes, merely was exercising his First Amendment right of free speech and posed no real threat to society.

The sheik, an avowed enemy of Mr. Mubarak's government, is no stranger to the courts and has successfully defended himself before. He was acquitted in Egypt of charges that he inspired the assassination of President Anwar el Sadat in 1981. He left Egypt after being accused in 1989 of inciting an anti-government riot.

Arriving secretly in Khartoum in Sudan, he obtained a visa in 1990 to enter the United States -- reportedly with help from the CIA, with which he had cooperated during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Some law enforcement officials who helped develop evidence in the current trial wonder in private whether the government has an airtight case against the sheik.

Some of Sheik Abdel Rahman's conversations recorded by Mr. Salem are vague and ambiguous, and there is no evidence that he ever was present in the Queens, N.Y., garage where explosive ingredients were mixed.

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