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Terrorism on Trial

February 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the trial and the larger question of whether courts are the place to fight terrorism, we turn to: Elaine Shannon, who covers the FBI and the Justice Department for Time magazine. Paul Bremer, ambassador-at-large for counter terrorism during the Reagan administration; recently, he served as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, charged with reviewing America’s counter-terrorism policies. He is now a political risk consultant in New York. And Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies and a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago. Welcome to all of you. Elaine Shannon, this is a massive indictment here. What is the big picture of the case that the government is trying to prove?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, it’s a big indictment but it reads like a detective story, a very chilling one. What the government is going to argue is that Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants were able to forge a pan-fanatic — I don’t even want to call it a coalition — sort of an association of people who hated the West and who hated the United States and groups of them would form cells, come together, do something thing bad and then disperse. Sunni, Shiite, Algerian, Saudi, Moroccan, Afghan, Pakistani, Lebanese, whatever, and what’s chilling about it is that one FBI person said to me, well, things used to be like a ladder. You could kind of tell the hierarchy. You would expect a certain way of communicating among the people here. It’s like circles and we can’t put names in all the places in the circles and sometimes they meet, sometimes they cross and sometimes they’re far apart.

MARGARET WARNER: From what you know about the case and what the prosecution is going to present, what is the most damning evidence they have, kind of evidence they have, tying these particular four men to what happened in the embassy bombings?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, they have two men who were on the ground: One in Tanzania and one in Nairobi. The one in Nairobi, Al-’Owhali was riding shotgun in the truck, got out — by his own statement given over there — threw a stun grenade; he had wounds on his back and they found him in the hospital. The other guy who is known as KK, using the… name for short, he was in the truck and then in the chase car in Dar es Salaam by the account of the prosecutor….

MARGARET WARNER: That’s KK Mohamed.

ELAINE SHANNON: Yeah, they call him KK. These guys are facing the death penalty if they’re convicted. Then there are two other people who are facilitators who helped set up, allegedly, help set up the cell in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. That’s Wadih El-Hage who is this American naturalized citizen and… well, there are three actually, a man named Salim who was arrested in Germany.

He’s going to be tried separately, and then we have Odeh who was supposedly helped set up the cell, then left and went to Pakistan and was stopped by chance by the Pakistani customs officials. They didn’t like what his answers were, so they held him, CIA got him sprung over Nairobi and got him back here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how does the prosecution propose to connect these four men and what they did with bin Laden?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, one thing about this particular alleged conspiracy and I’m using alleged a lot because this case is on trial. I believe in innocent until proven guilty, but I know that the FBI found an awful lot of papers and they found a lot of telephone records and a lot of cell phone records and I also know that there’s a… an Egyptian by birth, a naturalized citizen named Ali Mohamed who has claimed to have been part of one of the inner circles of al Qaeda and is now going to testify against these other people, that they were part of the al Qaeda conspiracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is he the one who actually was himself a defendant but has pled guilty?

ELAINE SHANNON: That’s correct. He’s the one who says that in 1994 he was sent to case the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, take pictures, all this kind of stuff, went and showed a picture to bin Laden who then pointed to a place and said this is where a truck bomb could go.

MARGARET WARNER: I know that each of these defendants has his own lawyer, but is there a common defense strategy? What’s the defense strategy?

ELAINE SHANNON: There are several defense strategies. There were two people who gave statements overseas, and they’re claiming that while these were coerced, they were in fear and so these should be thrown out. They tried that once and the judge admitted the statements. But they’ll still claim, I think, intimidation. The one from Tanzania, KK Mohamed, is going to claim that, well, yeah, he did all this stuff but he was just a teeny fish. Shouldn’t deserve the death penalty. The one that should be on trial is Osama bin Laden. Wadih El-Hage, who is the man who lives or his family is in Texas now, who is the alleged secretary for bin Laden is going to say, well, this is guilt by association. Yes, I worked for Osama bin Laden, but in his legitimate enterprises all over the world. Just because I did that you can’t say I was involved in the bombing. Now Ali Mohamed looks like he’s going to testify against him and say yes, I know you communicated intimately with Osama bin Laden at all these different times, and his own papers according to the indictment are pretty incriminating.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul Bremer, is a trial like this the way to go after international terrorists?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I think in this trial as in the trial last week that came to the end of the Lockerbie bombing, we see really the limitations of the law enforcement approach because what we saw in Lockerbie, for example, was that a small fry, a guy who was a bag man and was completely expendable in the eyes of Qadhafi was found guilty while the big guys who called the shots and who were responsible for the largest mass murder go free. We have the same risk here. These are basically small-time operatives. These are privates in the war. And the officers are going free.

MARGARET WARNER: And is the problem that when you attack it through a trial that, what — the rules of evidence are too strict? Why isn’t it still effective even if you’re getting lower down people to go after it in this… treat it as a crime and go after it that way?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, I’ve got nothing wrong with locking up and even giving the death penalty people who killed Americans, but if it is the only thing we do, we’re kidding ourselves because we’re not going after the cause of the problem. So there’s nothing wrong with taking these guys to trial as long as we don’t think that’s all we’re going to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So how does one… what’s the alternative in your view?

L. PAUL BREMER: Well, if you take the case, either of these cases, either the bombings in East Africa or the blowing up of Pan Am 103, you’re dealing really with mass murder against Americans and in the case of East Africa against Africans and against Britons in Scotland. And those are acts basically of war against the United States. Those are not just criminal acts. Every time one of these major attacks happens, the president is faced with a difficult choice: Does he consider the issue to be primarily a law enforcement issue or does it consider it to be a national security issue? And in many ways you have to go down both paths. Of course if you can get your hands on some of the foot soldiers and try them and put them in jail, that’s good. But that can’t be the only answer. If you look back from the time of Pan Am 103 to the present, that’s now 12 years, several hundred Americans have been killed in terrorist acts and no senior terrorist has paid any price yet. We’ve got a few of these guys we’ve rounded up, these small fishes, as Ms. Shannon put it, but we haven’t got any of the big guys and that’s not good.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, how do you see it? Do you agree that trials like this really only get the small fish and that it’s got to be treated also as a national security matter?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well I think it is a national security matter but how you then treat it I think is an open question. To the extent that you can find out who does these kinds of things, then I think that these things should be dealt with in terms of law enforcement. But I think that the case that Mr. Bremer raised of the alleged Libyan attack on the… at Lockerbie, the bombing of this plane, this horrible act, is still a matter of controversy in the law enforcement community as well as in the intelligence community as well as in the public. I don’t think it’s entirely clear that the allegations that were made and the conviction that, in fact, was brought in, do point a finger at the right source of this attack. This is always a problem. I think it’s a national security matter in the sense that if this is a war, then this is a political matter. And to deal with it solely in terms of, say, attacking a drug factory in Sudan or firing cruise missiles into Afghanistan in some cases may end up playing into the hands of the people who carry this thing out.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with Paul Bremer — he’s saying go down both tracks but that the U.S. government should respond militarily and treat this as an act of war?

RASHID KHALIDI: What I’m saying is that if you do respond militarily and treat it as an act of war you risk playing into the hands of the people who are attacking the United States by showing the United States as a country that doesn’t respect international law and by making mistakes, as happened, for example, in the Sudan where the United States has paid a large sum… your introduction didn’t mention this… to the owners of the pharmaceutical factory after it was discovered that that factory had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. Your problem is whether you’re bringing a case in court or whether you’re firing cruise missiles, is your information correct and what is the political impact of this? The people who carried out these attacks or the attack on the Cole are people who are capitalizing on popular feeling against the United States. If you increase that popular feeling against the United States, whether you hit a target or not, whether you hit the right or the wrong target, you may in fact be playing their game. So I’m suggesting you should obey international law in all cases and if people can be caught, bring them to trial. But at the same time you should be very, very careful in carrying out acts that may be violations of international law especially because when you make a mistake you’re probably hurting the United States a lot more than you’re helping.

L. PAUL BREMER: Can I respond to that, please?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Please do.

L. PAUL BREMER: First of all it’s not an alleged crime of Libya any longer. We don’t have to use the word alleged. He was found guilty in a court of law. Secondly there’s no reason — I agree with you not to obey international law. International law makes it very clear under article 51 of the charter of the United Nations that we have a right of self-defense. There’s absolutely no question that the president has the authority to respond militarily where he has good intelligence. I agree with you he must get good intelligence and you have to do it right so it’s not a panacea to simply launch a bunch of cruise missiles and say you’ve solved the problem. That is certainly correct. And you do have to look at the reactions in the wider world. But the trouble with your line of reasoning is you wind up being a Hamlet. You wind up doing nothing because you say to yourself, well, the people who attacked the Cole if we hit them back they’re going to be even angrier at us so they’ll do something else and in the end you do nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, it depends. If you find the people who actually have carried out an attack against the United States, as they seem to have in this case, you bring them to trial. Where you can’t catch them or find them, you then have to decide what to do. But you should be looking at the fact that for example in Saudi Arabia and in many parts of the Arab world there’s a very strong feeling – in some cases a majority feeling — against an American military presence. And so you have to sit there and weigh does the United States need a naval presence in some areas? If so, does that outweigh popular feeling? And if that’s the case, is the United States willing to put up with the necessary reaction on the part of public opinion to an unwanted American military presence? How would we feel if another country were stationing troops in say Oklahoma against the majority sentiment in the United States? So yes, you have to do something in cases where you have proper evidence. My contention is that quite frequently these actions are taken without proper evidence. In the case of Lockerbie, a court of law has reached a finding and a defendant has been found guilty. But very strong arguments are still being adduced that there’s an entirely different set of perpetrators of this atrocity.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get right back to the current trial and I want to hear all three of you on this very briefly. Elaine Shannon, in terms of getting this back to bin Laden, even if the government convicts all four of these men, what does the government think that will do for them in terms of either curbing bin Laden’s activities or nailing bin Laden?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, this is exactly the problem here. I mean, there are a lot of people who are fanatically anti-American who will just sign up to be the next bunch of martyrs. They hope to deter bin Laden by making people who are on the border think, and also there’s a $5 million reward for bin Laden and maybe somebody who is not getting paid so well might want to collect that instead of his death and a free trip to heaven. But on the other hand, there are plenty of people who are totally driven by hatred and driven by emotion. Bin Laden can capitalize on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Rashidi, Khalidi, excuse me, Rashid Khalidi. And I know that. Tell me your view on that one question. In other words let’s say all four men are convicted, do you think that the government is right that this might deter other people from working with him?

RASHID KHALIDI: Probably not. The kind of motivations that drive people are political and are very strong in most cases. I think the best thing that the government can do to decrease this kind of terrorism is to look carefully at its policy in areas like the Middle East and see where there’s an absolutely vital interest and you may have to do things people won’t like but where in fact the United States is acting against its own national interest by needlessly alienating people. That is probably the best thing that we can do.

MARGARET WARNER: And Paul Bremer, your view if there’s a conviction in this case: impact on bin Laden.

L. PAUL BREMER: Extremely marginal. These are just foot soldiers. They’re expendable in bin Laden’s view. One of them the Tanzanian has admitted he thought he was going there for martyrdom. You don’t deter somebody like that with a trial.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much for being with us.