Saudi man convicted of conspiracy in ’98 US embassy bombings
NEW YORK (AP) — A man prosecutors portrayed as one of al-Qaida’s early leaders was convicted Thursday of conspiracy in the deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa following a trial that showcased the terror group’s early days.
Khaled Al-Fawwaz stood expressionless, pursing his lips briefly, as the anonymous jury delivered its verdict after 2 1/2 days of deliberating. He could face life in prison, though his lawyers said he planned to appeal.
Prosecutors said al-Fawwaz, a 52-year-old Saudi Arabian, was a close confidant of Osama bin Laden and made sure bin Laden’s death threats against Americans were heard and noticed worldwide in 1998.
“From his onetime place at the top of al-Qaida’s membership list, Fawwaz now joins the long membership list of convicted, jailed terrorists,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. With al-Fawwaz’s conviction, 10 defendants tied to the embassy bombings have been convicted or pleaded guilty, Bharara said.
Al-Fawwaz’ lawyers said he was a peaceful dissident who had no part in al-Qaida’s violent plans. They saw the case as skewed by the passage of time and the drumbeat of news and fear about terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Trying a pre-9/11 terror case in a post-9/11 world, blocks from the World Trade Center, ensured that Mr. al-Fawwaz could never receive a truly fair trial,” defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said after the verdict.
As one of bin Laden’s “original and most trusted lieutenants,” al-Fawwaz led an al-Qaida Afghanistan training camp in the early 1990s, participated in a terrorist cell in Kenya and set up a media information office in London where he became bin Laden’s link to Western journalists, Bharara said.
Al-Fawwaz disseminated bin Laden’s 1998 order to followers to kill Americans, a directive that was followed by the August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Bharara said. The attacks killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
“Murderous words lead to murderous action,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin told jurors during the trial.
An al-Qaida roster of original members lists bin Laden first and al-Fawwaz ninth, and 18 copies of bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war — signed by bin Laden — were found in al-Fawwaz’s London apartment, prosecutors said. The roster was found in an al-Qaida leader’s home after Sept. 11, 2001, the government said.
Defense lawyers said al-Fawwaz sought only peaceful reform in his homeland. While he associated with bin Laden and some other al-Qaida members early on, al-Fawwaz was dismayed by bin Laden’s shift toward violence and wasn’t aware of any plots for bloodshed, Sternheim said.
“We emphatically dispute that Khaled al-Fawwaz joined any violent conspiracy” against American citizens or property, she said.
The monthlong trial unfolded in a heavily fortified courthouse where federal guards stood outside with machine guns and spectators had to pass through a special metal detector outside the courtroom.
Jurors got a picture of al-Qaida in its infancy, when its members numbered in the hundreds and it plotted terrorist attacks that eventually drew the attention of criminal investigators a world away. Witnesses included an American former al-Qaida member who said bin Laden asked him in 1995 to kill Egypt’s president by ramming the president’s plane with bin Laden’s in midair. The New York Police Department’s counterterrorism and intelligence chief, John Miller, testified about meeting al-Fawwaz in London in 1998, when Miller was a TV news correspondent.
Al-Fawwaz did not testify. Arrested in London in 1998, he was extradited from Great Britain in 2012.
Al-Fawwaz had been scheduled to stand trial with a co-defendant, Abu Anas al-Libi, but he died last month after a long illness.
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.