Four followers of Osama bin Laden conspired with the Saudi dissident in the fatal 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa as part of a ruthless plan "to kill Americans anywhere in the world they can be found," a prosecutor alleged on Monday.
"The story about to unfold before you is long, complicated and chilling," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Butler told the jury in his opening statement about the men's alleged participation in the bombings that killed more than 220 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands.
However, the prosecutor said the charges were simple.
"All four defendants entered into an illegal agreement to work with Osama bin Laden and others to kill Americans anywhere in the world they can be found."
The trial, which is expected to last at least nine months, began amid tight security in a Manhattan federal court. About 1,300 potential jurors were screened for the final panel that is made up of six men and six women. There are also six alternates.
The defendants are named along with bin Laden and a group of others in an indictment containing more than 300 counts. They are accused of trying to kill U.S. military personnel and civilians in schemes that began in 1989 and included the August 1998 bombings of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Bin Laden allegedly masterminded the twin blasts.
"What it did to human beings that day defies description," Butler said.
Bin Laden, who is in Afghanistan, is among 13 defendants who are fugitives and the U.S. government is offering rewards of $5 million for information leading to their arrest. Three other defendants are fighting extradition from Britain.
Those on trial are Wadih El-Hage, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon; Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, 24, a Saudi Arabian; Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, a Tanzanian, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 35, a Jordanian.
TWO COULD FACE DEATH PENALTY
Mohamed and al-'Owhali, who are charged with directly helping to carry out the embassy bombings, could face the death penalty if convicted.
Mohamed's lawyer Jeremy Schneider conceded that his client had helped grind the TNT used in the Dar es Salaam explosion and loaded it on the truck used in the bombing. However, Schneider described Mohamed as a "pawn" who did not know the target and was unaware he was part of a broad conspiracy headed by bin Laden.
Schneider said Mohamed had been asked by unnamed people to help with a Jihad (holy war) and that he was acting "purely out of principle" and "deep, deep religious beliefs."
"The government will not prove he is an evil person. They will prove he participated in an evil act," Schneider said.
Frederick Cohn, who represents al-'Owhali, declined to make an opening statement. His client allegedly admitted to authorities that he rode in the truck used in the Nairobi bombing and described the attack as a "martyrdom operation."
Odeh and el-Hage are accused of participating in the wider conspiracy, and if convicted they could face life imprisonment.
The indictment, which also includes charges of a conspiracy to kill members of the U.S. military stationed in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, focuses on the alleged activities of al Qaeda (the Base). Butler said bin Laden runs the "terrorist group" and "plotted for years to kill Americans."
He said that bin Laden formed the group in the 1980s in Afghanistan to help Muslims fight the invasion by the former Soviet Union but then expanded its activities.
"Bin Laden saw this as an opportunity to use well-trained soldiers to overthrow governments he did not like," Butler said. The prosecutor said that al Qaeda grew into a network of people who shared bin Laden's "extremist philosophy."
BIN LADEN DECREES AMERICANS' MURDER
Bin Laden endorsed a fatwa, or religious decree, stating Muslims should kill Americans - including civilians - anywhere in the world, Butler alleged.
Sam Schmidt, one of el-Hage's lawyers, said there was no evidence that his client participated in the embassy bombings.
He acknowledged that el-Hage had worked as a personal secretary to bin Laden, but said that he was not part of the wealthy exile's inner circle.
"He (el-Hage) was a businessman. He only related to bin Laden as a businessman," Schmidt said.
He described el-Hage as a "devout, caring person" and a "mediator" who would never participate in a plot to kill Americans." He said el-Hage, who lived in Texas, would never have wanted to hurt Americans as his wife is American and he raised his seven children in the United States.
Anthony Ricco, one of Odeh's defense lawyers, said that his client was a member of al Qaeda but denied that he was part of a conspiracy to kill Americans.
He described Odeh as an "extremely, devoted religious man" and said he joined the group as a "soldier."
"His participation as a soldier is based on one thing: his love of Islam," Ricco said explaining that Odeh would not have agreed to activities that violate Islamic laws prohibiting suicide or the murder of innocent people and children.
He said Odeh fought in Afghanistan to help Muslims. "He was not trained as a terrorist."