MANHATTAN (CN) – In the latest trial over the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies, a New York jury could not have starker contrasts of the man on the dock: Saudi-born Khalid al-Fawwaz.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin, a seasoned prosecutor of terrorism trials here, introduced the Saudi to the jury as “[Osama] bin Laden’s man in London” in thundering opening remarks delivered blocks away from the former World Trade Center on Thursday.
During their arguments, neither party mentioned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which happened more than three years after the conspiracies charged in this case.
But Lewin reminded the New York jury about the perpetrators of both attacks at every turn.
Within roughly an hour of opening arguments, the prosecutor mentioned al-Qaida more than 75 times and bin Laden more than 50 times.
Indeed, Lewin contended that Fawwaz’s name appeared in the 9th slot on al-Qaida’s internal list of 170 members, and that he and bin Laden bitterly condemned Saudi Arabia’s inviting the United States to use its territory as a base for the Persian War on Aug. 7, 1990.
Al-Qaida’s bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania fell on the eighth anniversary of that date. The twin strikes killed 224 people, injured thousands and have initiated a string of prosecutions here in New York.
Fawwaz’s lawyer, Bobbi Stearnheim, called the accusations against her client in these attacks an example of government “overreach” in a time of “crisis.”
With her client seated feet away from her, Stearnheim described Fawwaz as a “calm, serene, peaceful and pious” Saudi dissident. Fawwaz appeared in court in religious attire, dressed entirely in white with a traditional Muslim head covering known as a taqiyah and an ankle-length thobe.
Fawwaz concedes that he struck up a friendship with bin Laden during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and that they remained in contact to push for the reform of their home country of Saudi Arabia.
Stearnheim said that her client had been working as an aide worker and thought of al-Qaida’s future boss as a “war hero” for his fight against the former U.S.S.R., but that the two had a falling out after bin Laden advocated violent jihad against the United States.
Lewin calls Fawwaz’s self-description as a peaceful dissident a cover for his “secret life in London,” which came to light after authorities raided the offices of his group, the Advice and Reformation Committee (ARC), shortly after the embassy bombings.
Officially, the ARC fought against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. But Lewin called it an al-Qaida “front.”
Inside its London offices, British authorities found 17 copies of bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa calling for the murder of U.S. citizens and Jews around the world. Lewin brandished those aging papers in a plastic evidence bag for the jury, which he said were signed by bin Laden and bound for distribution.
The prosecutor held up another evidence bag holding a floppy disk that he said contained multiple drafts of the fatwa.
Stearnheim said that her client had been “shocked, upset and angry” about that declaration, but that he kept bin Laden on the ARC to take advantage of his name and influence. Fawwaz acted as a “conduit” between bin Laden and the outside world, including U.S. reporters who interviewed him, she added.
One of those journalists, former ABC News correspondent John Miller, is expected to testify at trial.
Fawwaz faces life imprisonment if convicted.
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