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Wednesday, May 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Four guilty in embassy bombings

The Washington Post

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A federal jury in New York convicted four men yesterday of plotting to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania three years ago as part of a terrorist conspiracy led by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.

The verdicts followed the largest FBI investigation on foreign soil and the biggest foreign terrorism trial in the United States in five years, a complex effort that pulled in defendants and witnesses from three continents.

After three months of testimony, the jury deliberated for 12 days before declaring the defendants guilty on all charges.

Prosecutors said the convictions were only the first in what they promised would be a sustained legal assault on al Qaeda, the network allegedly headed by bin Laden, the heir to a Saudi Arabian fortune who tops the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List.

"These verdicts are a triumph for world justice and for world unity in combatting international terrorism," U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said. The embassy bombings took place minutes apart on Aug. 7, 1998, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounding 4,600 others.

Eighteen more defendants have been indicted in the conspiracy, including six who are in custody awaiting trial. A dozen others - including bin Laden and his two top lieutenants, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan - are still at large. The State Department has offered a $5 million reward for bin Laden's arrest.

Two of the defendants convicted yesterday - Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, of Tanzania, and Rashed Daoud Owhali, 23, of Saudi Arabia - were found guilty of conspiracy and murder for helping to manufacture and deliver the truck bombs used against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In hearings scheduled to begin today, the jury will decide whether Owhali and Mohamed should be executed, the first time that a federal court will consider the death penalty against a foreign terrorist targeting U.S. citizens abroad.

The other two defendants - Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, 35, a Palestinian born in Jordan, and Wadih Hage, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon - were convicted of conspiring to kill Americans around the world and could be sentenced to life in prison.

Defense attorneys for all four men said they planned to appeal, expressing disappointment that jurors had swallowed what Edward Wilford, one of Odeh's lawyers, called "emotional hype" associated with the bombings.

In the end, the jury handed prosecutors a complete victory, finding the defendants guilty of all counts in a 302-count indictment.

More than an hour to read verdict

The jury's forewoman took more than an hour to read through a 61-page verdict form, repeating, "guilty ... guilty ... guilty" to a courtroom packed with more than 100 victims, family and members of the media.

Outside the courtroom, Ellen Bomer, a federal employee blinded by the blast in Nairobi, rejoiced. "Justice has been served. ... We've all suffered so much," she said.

"It's a bittersweet feeling that we have, but it doesn't erase all the pain that we feel for ourselves or the other victims' families," said Sue Bartley, whose husband, Consul General Julian Bartley Sr. and son, Julian Jr., an embassy intern, died in the Nairobi explosion.

Said Bartley's daughter Edith, "We hope terrorists worldwide will know that America will not stand for their actions."

Terrorists must be prepared to take the consequences of their actions, said Clara Aliganga when asked about the death penalty. She lost her son, Sgt. Nathan Aliganga, 21, a Marine security guard who died in the embassy bombing.

In Nairobi, near the busy downtown intersection where tin sheets shield the former embassy site that is being turned into a memorial park, passers-by also welcomed the verdict and called the death penalty appropriate.

"I don't see why they shouldn't pay for their crime," said Margaret Mendis, an insurance-company employee. "You always want to turn the other cheek, but too many people have suffered and are still suffering."

When the trial began in February, prosecutors promised to reveal a "long, complicated and chilling" plot to murder Americans "anywhere in the world." They called 90 witnesses and introduced thousands of exhibits, including graphic photographs of the carnage from the embassy bombings.

The witnesses included two defectors, both now in the federal witness-protection program, who provided the first insiders' view of al Qaeda. They described a disciplined Islamic network whose members swore lifetime allegiance and faced death for disloyalty.

Both testified that bin Laden's overarching objective was to kill U.S. military personnel and civilians as a way to drive the U.S. military out of the Persian Gulf.

Prosecutors faced their most difficult challenge in convicting Hage, since he had relinquished control of al Qaeda's cell in Nairobi and returned to the United States in 1997, a year before the embassy attacks.

Having tapped his telephone, searched his home, confiscated his computer and detained his U.S. wife and children in Kenya, however, prosecutors were able to present extensive evidence that Hage "worked for a group that he knew was fighting America," Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzerald said.

Defendant `nowhere near' carnage

Hage's lawyer, Sam Schmidt, lamented the jury's verdict. "They used the carnage that occurred in 1998, when Mr. El Hage was nowhere near it," he said. Defense attorneys argued that Hage, who lives in Arlington, Texas, with his family, was a legitimate businessman and that the case against him did not prove that he had agreed to kill Americans, one of the sworn aims of al Qaeda members.

Odeh was described by prosecutors as a "technical adviser" to bin Laden's organization who helped plan the embassy attack in Nairobi but fled the day before it occurred. A key piece of evidence was a sketch, found in his home, of where the truck bomb should be directed.

The government's case was strongest against the two death-penalty defendants, Owhali and Mohamed, both of whom confessed to participating in the embassy attacks. Prosecutors described Owhali as a member of al Qaeda's East African "cell" who was supposed to die in the Nairobi attack but fled after throwing stun grenades at embassy guards.

Prosecutors said Mohamed trained in bin Laden's camps and rented the group's bomb factory in Dar es Salaam, where he helped grind TNT for use in the bomb and load it onto the truck.

Attorneys for both Owhali and Mohamed have argued that their clients were mere foot soldiers and should not face the death penalty. Information from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.

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