NEW YORK, Jan 23 – US prosecutors on Thursday told the New York trial of Saudi exile Khalid al-Fawwaz that he conspired with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda across three continents for nearly a decade.
A 12-person anonymous jury was sworn at the start of the latest Al-Qaeda trial to be heard in federal courts in Manhattan, close to where the former Twin Towers stood before the 9/11 attacks.
Fawwaz is accused on four counts of conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy property in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded around 5,000.
He pleads not guilty, insisting he was an anti-corruption campaigner not a terrorist, but faces life behind bars if convicted and has already served 16 years since his arrest in London in 1998.
Of stocky build and with a long grey beard, he sat in court dressed in a neatly pressed white tunic and a silk white prayer hat and exchanged pleasantries with his lawyers.
Assistant US attorney Nicholas Lewin opened his case by striding over to Fawwaz and pointing dramatically.
He accused Fawwaz of joining Al-Qaeda soon after Bin Laden founded the terror network and of having been among its leaders for nearly a decade.
“He belonged to a conspiracy led by Osama bin Laden to attack and kill Americans, and to destroy symbols of the United States,” Lewin said.
“For nearly a decade and across three different continents the defendant worked for Al-Qaeda.”
Fawwaz led one of Al-Qaeda’s first terror camps in the mountains of Afghanistan, helped lead a terror cell in Kenya and spent years “helping craft and spread” the group’s message from London.
He allegedly helped bin Laden declare bloody war on America in 1996, and was ninth on a list of 107 names from Al-Qaeda’s small, tight-knit early days.
Lewin held up plastic bags that he said contained 17 copies of Al-Qaeda’s declaration of war and discs containing multiple drafts of the document, allegedly seized from Fawwaz’s home.
– ‘A peaceful reformer’ –
Defense lawyer Bobbi Sternheim said her client was nothing more than a “calm and serene” man who dedicated his life to peaceful reform in his corrupt homeland.
She delivered a lengthy history lesson about the US-sponsored jihad to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s and the corruption that he was allegedly determined to end in Saudi Arabia.
She said he had “never” shared the violent views of bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, was never a member of Al-Qaeda and was only interested in peaceful reform in Saudi Arabia.
She admitted that the defendant met and knew Bin Laden, and other members of Al-Qaeda, and had travelled to Afghanistan and Kenya, but disputed the government’s narrative.
Instead, Sternheim urged the jury to step back in time and understand his background, and avoid the “prism of prejudice” and “fog of fear” to find him not-guilty.
“He is calm, serene, peaceful and pious,” she said, adding that he first went to London with his wife on a “long over-due honeymoon” and to study business English.
“Khalid was shocked by the 1996 declaration. Shocked, upset and angry,” she said.
He was honest about his contacts, admitting to British MI5 agents that he knew Bin Laden and wanted to be in touch with events in Afghanistan, and asking whether it would be lawful to do so.
“He was given the go ahead,” Sternheim said.
He was arrested by Scotland Yard and held for five days before being released without charge.
And she argued it was US government “overreach” which saw him re-arrested immediately afterwards to face extradition.
The trial is being heard in a court room practically in sight of where the former Twin Towers stood before they were destroyed by Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks.
Among those expected to testify during the five-week trial will be victims of the 1998 bombings.
Fawwaz fought a 14-year battle against extradition before being sent to the United States to stand trial.