Four convicted in U.S. embassy bombings; two could face death penalty

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NEW YORK - Four followers of Osama bin Laden were convicted today of all charges in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and injured thousands of others in a shower of rubble and twisted metal.

Two defendants were convicted of counts that could carry the death penalty.

Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali, 24, of Saudi Arabia; Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, of Tanzania; Wadih El-Hage, 40, of Arlington, Texas; and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, 36, of Jordan, were convicted of conspiring to kill Americans in the nearly simultaneous bombings.

The death penalty counts pertained to Al-Owhali and Mohamed, who were convicted of using an explosive to cause mass destruction. The jury will return Wednesday to begin the penalty phase for the two.

The verdict from an anonymous federal jury in a tightly guarded Manhattan federal courtroom set the stage for more trials: Six other defendants charged in the conspiracy are in custody; a dozen others, including bin Laden, are being sought.

The courtroom was packed with about 100 spectators when the verdicts were read on the 12th day of jury deliberations. Several relatives of the defendants wiped away tears or hung their heads as each name was read aloud by the judge's deputy, followed by a litany of dozens of "guilty" verdicts.

Odeh, wearing a white cap, took notes. His attorney patted him on the back when Odeh was convicted on the first count. Otherwise, the defendants showed little reaction.

In all, the jury returned guilty verdicts on 302 counts that took more than an hour to read. Many of the counts named individual victims. As the judge recited the count that mentioned diplomat Prabhi Gutpara Kavaler, the victim's husband, Howard, clutched their two daughters tightly.

An appeal was planned, Odeh's attorney Edward Wilford said afterward.

Jurors heard nearly three months of testimony about the twin blasts on Aug. 7, 1998, at embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Even though the attack was overseas, the United States had jurisdiction because American property was targeted. Twelve Americans were among the dead.

The defendants were brought to trial in New York because the U.S. attorney's office here had been investigating bin Laden since 1996. The same office had successfully prosecuted a dozen men in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Some jurors appeared stunned as they viewed photos of torn and burned bodies, charred cars and smoldering concrete ruins.

Some of the most dramatic testimony came from Prudence Bushnell, then the ambassador to Kenya, who said she was certain she was going to die as she descended the bloody stairwell of a building next door to the embassy.

"There was blood everywhere on the banister. I could feel the person behind me bleeding onto me," Bushnell testified March 1. "I thought to myself the building was going to collapse ... and I was going to die." She said that when she got outside, she saw a burning vehicle and "the charred remains of what was once a human being."

The jury heard prosecutors repeatedly invoke the name of bin Laden. They charged that as the reputed kingpin of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, he commanded a ragtag army of Islamic extremists who had answered the call to repel the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

As early as 1989, prosecutors said, bin Laden was taking aim at another superpower - the United States - and by 1998 had issued an edict to kill Americans anywhere they are found. A key government witness, former terrorist Jamal al-Fadl, testified that bin Laden referred to the United States as the "head of the snake."

The bombings brought an unprecedented worldwide response to terrorism by hundreds of FBI agents and prosecutors. Treating terrorism like organized crime, investigators used informants, turncoat terrorists, telephone bugs and confessions to build the case.

In a confession recounted during the trial by an FBI agent, Al-Owhali, told investigators he rode the bomb-carrying truck to the embassy in Nairobi and tossed stun grenades to distract guards. The would-be suicide bomber fled before he could become a martyr.

In a similar confession to another agent, Mohamed said he helped grind TNT for the bomb in Tanzania before loading the bomb truck and seeing it off, praying that it would achieve its deadly purpose.

Prosecutors alleged that El-Hage - bin Laden's personal secretary - led "a secret double life," globe-trotting to raise money and smuggle weapons like Stinger missiles for al-Qaeda's terror plots.

Odeh, an alleged explosives expert, was accused of being a "technical adviser" to the terror group. He stayed in the same hotel room with the mastermind of the Nairobi bombing in the days just before the attack, prosecutors said.

Defense lawyers claimed Mohamed was a mere "pawn" unaware of the bomb's intent, while Al-'Owhali should have been exonerated because he was accused of a decade-long worldwide conspiracy he knew nothing about.

The defense also argued that explosives residue on Odeh's clothing was inconclusive and that he was a victim of guilt by association because he had joined al-Qaeda. Lawyers for El-Hage argued that he was a businessman who knew nothing about bin Laden's terrorism designs.

With extraordinary cooperation from local authorities in Africa, the FBI interviewed the defendants soon after the bombings and placed them in custody.

Two of the four defendants, Al-'Owhali and Odeh, were arrested in Nairobi just days after the bombings. The Texan, El-Hage, was arrested in this country one month after the bombings, while Mohamed was apprehended in South Africa in October 1999.