The government's long-awaited prosecution of what it considers a global extremist network run by Islamic militant Osama bin Laden starts Wednesday in New York.
Jury selection will begin in the case of four alleged bin Laden followers who are charged with plotting to bomb two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and kill Americans "anywhere in the world."
While bin Laden remains beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement in the mountains of Afghanistan, this week's trial represents the Justice Department's first courtroom attack on bin Laden's extremist infrastructure since the government identified the Saudi fugitive and his al Qaeda network as the nation's top terrorist threat after the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998.
"In terms of significance, it's the first case where we've been able to lay hands on, prosecute _ and hopefully convict and incarcerate _ members of his organization," said Robert M. Blitzer, a former top FBI counterterrorism official. "With this prosecution _ and other activities that have occurred around the world _ little by little the U.S. government has dismantled or injured his terrorist organization."
The four men set for trial this week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan include one U.S. citizen, Wadih Hage, 40, and three foreign nationals who were arrested abroad _ Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh and Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali.
Hage, 40, a tire store manager from Arlington, Texas, worked as bin Laden's personal secretary in Sudan and allegedly set up an al Qaeda cell in Nairobi before returning to the United States with his American wife and seven children in 1997. While he is charged for conspiring to kill Americans as a key al Qaeda operative, he is not charged with murder for participating in either of the embassy bombings, in which 224 people, including 12 Americans, were killed and almost 4,600 were injured.
Mohamed, a Tanzanian citizen in his twenties, is charged with murder and conspiracy. He could face the death penalty for plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, grinding dynamite in an al Qaeda safehouse and riding part of the way to the embassy in the truck carrying the bomb.
Owhali, a Yemeni national, is also charged with conspiracy and murder and could face the death penalty for plotting both embassy bombings. He, too, allegedly rode part of the way to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on the truck carrying the bomb and threw stun grenades at an embassy guard before jumping off the vehicle and fleeing seconds before the blast.
Odeh, a Palestinian born in Jordan, is also charged with murder and conspiracy for plotting both embassy bombings. Prosecutors have not sought the death penalty, possibly because Odeh left Nairobi the night before the embassy bombing for Pakistan, where he was arrested.
The four are among 21 defendants, including bin Laden, charged by the federal government in a 319-count indictment with plotting to bomb the embassies and kill Americans all over the world. Prosecutors claim the defendants are part of an Islamic fundamentalist crusade against U.S. interests, particularly the presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
Bin Laden and 12 other defendants, including five who were added to the indictment on Dec. 21, are not in custody. Three suspects are fighting extradition from Britain, and five are in custody, including the four whose trial begins Wednesday.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys say jury selection alone could take more than a month and say the trial could last from nine months to a year.
Joshua L. Dratel, one of the lawyers representing Hage, called the trial unprecedented because of highly prejudicial news coverage.
"It seems like any time someone gets arrested (for a terrorist act), they try to find a link to bin Laden," Dratel said.
Dratel also noted that prospective jurors in New York already have lived through several sensational terrorism trials in Manhattan involving Arab defendants that could affect their views. In the earlier trials, defendants were convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 and plotting to blow up United Nations headquarters and other New York landmarks in 1994.
Numerous legal issues involving jury selection and evidence suppression remain unresolved.
In early December, U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand broke legal ground when he denied a motion filed by Hage and ruled that the government could use electronic intercepts of Hage's telephone conversations in Kenya in 1996 and 1997 that were obtained without a warrant.
Sand, in a Dec. 5 opinion, said he was the first judge to rule on "the applicability of the full panoply of the Fourth Amendment to searches conducted abroad by the United States for foreign intelligence purposes and which are directed at an American citizen believed to be an agent of a foreign power."
Sand held that while the intercepts were clearly unlawful, they were obtained by the government in good faith during a foreign intelligence operation in which the executive branch has broad latitude.