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Background: Terrorism on Trial

After this background report on the embassy bombing trial, a panel discusses the role of the courts in the fight against terrorism.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    On the morning of August 7, 1998, bomb blasts shattered two American embassies in East Africa. The near-simultaneous explosions in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people — including 12 Americans — and wounded 4,000 more. Within hours, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies had launched a full-scale investigation across the globe. Security was beefed up at U.S. embassies and at government buildings in Washington. But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned that she didn't foresee an end to terrorism any time soon.

  • MADELEINE ALBRIGHT:

    I think it's very important for the American people to understand that we are involved here in a long-term struggle. We have been affected by this before. This is, unfortunately, the war of the future and I think that we have to understand the importance of having sustained operations here.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    13 days later, the U.S. struck back. It aimed cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan — alleged to be making chemical weapons — and at the site of several suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

    U.S. officials said the attacks were not aimed at the countries that were hit, but at a terrorist network created and financed by the man they accused of masterminding the embassy attacks: Saudi exile Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is waging a declared holy war against the U.S. and its citizens. In the late 1980s, investigators say, the Saudi millionaire organized a group called al Qaeda, drawing originally from the ranks of Islamic men who had found common cause fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

    Today, investigators say, bin Laden oversees a far-flung network of terrorist operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Kenya, all devoted to attacking the United States and its interests around the globe.

    The trial that began in New York today is the U.S. government's most sweeping legal attack yet against bin Laden and his network. The government's indictment charges the four men on trial with conspiring to bomb the two embassies, and for being part of bin Laden's worldwide terrorist conspiracy. Eighteen other men were indicted, but most of them, including bin Laden, are still fugitives or fighting extradition.

    Two of the defendants face the death penalty if convicted: Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a 27-year-old from Tanzania, who is implicated in the bombing there; and 23-year-old Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali of Saudi Arabia, who is implicated in the Nairobi attack.

    The other two defendants could get life in prison without parole: 35-year-old Jordanian Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, accused of helping prepare the Nairobi attack; and 40-year-old Wadih El-Hage, a naturalized American citizen born in Lebanon, who prosecutors say served as one of bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants. Security at the federal district courthouse is tight, with dozens of armed U.S. marshals and bomb sniffing dogs to check every vehicle. Prosecutors expect the trial to last nine or ten months.

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