Bin Laden: the former CIA 'client' obsessed with training pilots
Special report: Terrorism in the US
Thursday September 13, 2001
Stories about him are legion. How he was known as one of the "Gucci muj", the scions of rich Arab families who poured into Afghanistan in the late 1980s to help the rougher-hewn mojahedin fight the Soviets. How, having won his spurs, he led an assault in the siege of Jalalabad and took possession of the "lucky" Kalashnikov which he now carries with him almost everywhere.
But perhaps the most interesting facts about America's public enemy number one (reward: $5m) and his organisation are to be found in the very city where his name is most spoken as the author of Tuesday's atrocity.
From February to July this year, court 318 in the southern district of New York saw the prosecution and conviction of four of those involved in the bombing of two US embassies in east Africa in 1998. An irascible, if witty judge, the Hon Leonard B Sand, presided over a landmark trial of enormous scope.
The transcript ran to millions of words (a number of pages are sealed), and includes many parallels to Tuesday's terrible events - including sophisticated planning, coordination across locations and, above all, the question of negligent security.
At one point, considering a disregard of warnings to American authorities in 1998, Judge Sand prefigured the latest attacks in a chance remark: "By example, if this court receives information that there is an airplane coming at the city of New York, there are 213 innocents aboard and a number of terrorists, and on board is a nuke device, and they're going to crash it into New York, and they're going to kill a million people, do you risk the death of those 213 or is that reckless disregard?"
What was most remarkable about the trial was the way it uncovered the secret workings of al-Qaida, the 5,000-strong terror organisation run by Bin Laden. How the group used videos to brainwash people into doing Osama bin Laden's will. How, typically, it followed political and religious induction with hardcore military training.
No less shocking were the details of America's deep and insidious connection with this man, whose status as an alleged former "client" of the CIA became an issue for the defence.
As Jeremy Schneider, attorney for one defendant, put it in his opening: "And you know what? You know who backed the Arab freedom fighters? United States. United States. We supported the Arab resistance in 1984 in Afghanistan. We, the United States, supported the training in Afghanistan. We gave them guns."
By the time Mr Schneider opened, court artists were already sketching the proceedings inside, jurors and officials were being swept with metal detectors each day and sniffer dogs were patrolling the corridors.
Outside, steel barriers and concrete blocks were in place to prevent rescue or suicide attempts by other members of al-Qaida.
Those accused were of varied Arab and African extraction, and worked at different levels of the organisation. One, Wadih el-Hage, was a 40-year-old moneyman and facilitator based in Texas and Kenya. He has already been confined to jail for life, along with two others, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh and Khalfan Khamis Mohammed.
The fourth man, 24-year-old Saudi Mohammed al'Owhali is due to be sentenced on Wednesday. In the other cases, jurors were unwilling to create martyrs by passing a death sentence. In any event, legal agreements with some of the countries from which the accused men had been extradited would have prevented execution. Al'Owhali drove the truck which carried the Nairobi bomb, jumping out at the last minute. Odeh, a 35-year-old Jordanian, ran a fishing business that provided a front for al-Qaida in Mombasa.
Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, 27, from Zanzibar, was the least educated and most impressionable of the group: he was the son of a peasant farmer on the mainly Muslim Indian Ocean spice island.
The cases for the defence kept returning to three sometimes contradictory issues: the ways in which al-Qaida brainwashed its members into terrible wrongdoing; the supposed fact (actually very debatable, as the statements from Islamic scholars made clear) that they were pursuing an imperative religious duty in committing themselves to jihad; and the balancing of their actions against those of the US in Iraq and elsewhere.
The defence hoped to make American bombing of Iraq an equivalent matter to the crime, in so far as the US also used "a weapon of mass destruction" - the phrase on the terrorists' charge sheet.
The weapons in question were not airliners that time round, but al-Qaida already had the capacity to supply planes and pilots, as made clear by this testimony from a Bin Laden associate, Essam al Ridi, formerly a flight instructor at the Ed Boardman school of aviation in Texas:
Q. And can you tell us how it came about that you became involved in buying an airplane?
A. There was quite a few communications between me and Wadih el-Hage about the interests of Osama acquiring an airplane_
Q. And what did he tell you about the airplane that he wished you to purchase for Osama bin Laden?
A. The price range within $350,000, and that is a range of about a little bit over two thousand miles.
Q. And why did al-Qaida want an aircraft?
A. They have some goods of their own they want to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum.
Q. And first of all, who is "they"?
A. Again, I'm referring to Wadih and Osama.
Q. And did he tell you what the goods were that he wanted to ship from Peshawar to Khartoum?
Q. What were they?
A. Stinger missiles.
Many al-Qaida trainees saw videos of such missiles and other weaponry daily as part of their training routine. Showing hundreds of hours of Muslims in dire straits - Palestinians on the West Bank, Bosnians being shot by Serbs, Chechens under attack from the Russian army and (most of all) dying Iraqi children - was part of al-Qaida's Ipcress-file style induction strategy.
Another aspect of this was quotation from the Koran, in the context of speeches by Bin Laden himself and his lieutenants, to justify violent actions.
Q. "And he [Bin Laden] would quote from the Koran and try to convince people through those quotes that what al-Qaida was doing and what you were being asked to do was something that a good Muslim would do, right?"
The prosecution was quick to show that the Koran is in the main a very peaceable document (at least, no less violent than the Bible). The limits of jihad included not harming the innocent, an imam from Bedford-Stuyvesant, an inner-city area of New York, insisted.
The arguments continued; the defence requested that the jury be bought copies of Teach Yourself Islam, but explication seemed only to breed further confusion.
There was, however, plenty of clear, hard data about terrorist training. As John Anticev, an FBI agent, reported after his interrogation of Mohammed Odeh: "He received military training that was broken up into three segments. The first segment was basic use of firearms, particularly the AK47, and kind of moved up to a belt-fed machine gun.
"The second level, they started learning about topography, map reading, and they got introduced to explosives, particularly C3, C4, and TNT. The third level of training involved more sophisticated weapons, like anti-tank missiles, rocket launchers, mortars, and anti-aircraft weapons."
Bin Laden's own methods and hobbyhorses also came to light, such as his use of an Inmarsat satellite telephone to relay instructions, and his procuring of planes and pilots for al-Qaida use: at one point, ominously, he seems to have been obsessed with this.
L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a former Bin Laden associate turned government witness, told the court how he was asked to take flying lessons:
Q. After you joined al-Qaida, you were asked to take training as a pilot, correct?
A. I joined the al-Qaida in 1991 and I was offered the training to be a pilot in 1993.
Q. As your beliefs progressed as a member of al-Qaida, you came to understand that one purpose of al-Qaida was to kill American nationals abroad, isn't that true?
A. Yes. Correct.
Q. And you became aware of the structure of al-Qaida. You knew, for example, that Osama Bin Laden was the emir or the leader of al-Qaida, correct?
It was not just information about Bin Laden and al-Qaida that emerged in the trial. The prosecution was obliged to reveal its own techniques: for example, the FBI hard disk seizure procedure in respect of an al-Qaida computer where "invisible" and deleted files were recovered as evidence for the government case.
The sheer scale of Bin Laden's operations also materialised: it had not hitherto been apparent that al-Qaida operatives had been involved in the attacks on US helicopters and marines in Somalia in 1994. Nor that efforts had been made to procure uranium for a nuclear device.
Much more basic weapons also figured in the case: weapons as basic as the knives and "cardboard cutters" - perhaps something like Stanley knives, easily disassembled and hidden - reportedly used by Tuesday's hijackers.
During their pre-trial detention in New York's metropolitan correction centre, two of the accused allegedly attacked a prison officer, Louis Pepe. They first sprayed chilli sauce in his face from plastic containers, then stabbed him in the eye with a plastic comb. If this was the level of savagery to which al-Qaida members could be brought by the one-time "Gucci muj" and US ally, then we must pity all the more those passengers and crew attacked during Tuesday's hijacks.
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