Ex-Army sergeant admits terrorist role

Saturday, October 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK – A former U.S. Army sergeant admitted Friday that he helped Osama bin Laden plan the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, directly linking the Saudi-born fugitive to the deadly attack for the first time.

The admission came as the former sergeant, Ali Mohamed, pleaded guilty to federal charges of participating in a terrorist conspiracy against Americans.

Mr. Mohamed said that in 1993, Mr. bin Laden asked him to conduct surveillance of U.S., British, French and Israeli targets in Nairobi.

Among those targets, which Mr. Mohamed said were chosen to retaliate against the United States for its intervention in the civil war in Somalia, was the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. "I took pictures, drew diagrams and wrote a report," he said.

He took the materials to Sudan, where they were "reviewed by Osama bin Laden," he said.

"Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber," Mr. Mohamed told Judge Leonard B. Sand of U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The guilty plea is a tremendous victory for the government, which is preparing to try five other defendants on charges related to the bombings and a broader terrorist conspiracy.

Mr. Mohamed seems likely to be able to give prosecutors – and ultimately a jury – an extraordinary look into the secret world of Mr. bin Laden, who remains the most wanted terrorism suspect in the United States.

"This guy could be a real gold mine of information about the domestic and international operations of the bin Laden organization," said former FBI counterterrorism chief Bob Blitzer.

"It will be very valuable information in terms of identifying the bad guys, the key leaders, where they are, how they operate, how they move people around, how they move weapons and explosives around, and just how they case various targets. That methodology, in and of itself, is valuable information for any investigator or for the intelligence community," he said.

Mr. bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi exile, has been indicted in the embassy-bombing conspiracy and has long been suspected of being its mastermind. He is believed to be living under the protection of the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mohamed, 48, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt, had worked for Mr. bin Laden over the last decade, after serving as a supply sergeant assigned to a Special Forces unit at Fort Bragg, N.C., from 1986 to 1989. He has been described by the government as one of Mr. bin Laden's oldest and most trusted lieutenants.

On Friday, he seemed to confirm that. In 1991, Mr. Mohamed said, he organized Mr. bin Laden's move from Afghanistan to Sudan, where he was relocating his base of operations.

Three years later, after Mr. bin Laden was nearly assassinated, Mr. Mohamed was summoned to Sudan to train Mr. bin Laden's personal bodyguards and to coordinate with Sudanese intelligence agents who were responsible for Mr. bin Laden's security outside his compound.

Mr. Mohamed revealed Friday that Mr. bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, used tactics inspired by the suicide bombers who blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 soldiers and leading U.S. troops to leave Lebanon.

"Based on the Marine explosion in Beirut and the American pullout from Beirut," he said, "they will be the same method, to force the United States to pull out from Saudi Arabia."

Plea agreement

The five charges against Mr. Mohamed all pertain to the broader conspiracy, which included the embassy attacks in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in August 1998, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.

Mr. Mohamed could have faced a maximum term of life in prison. Now, because of the plea agreement, he probably will receive a shorter term.

During the hearing, Judge Sand said that under the deal, Mr. Mohamed would receive no less than 25 years in prison. Then, after a brief conference with prosecutors and Mr. Mohamed's lawyers, the judge said the sentence was for a specified number of years, but he did not disclose the number in court.

It was not clear Friday whether Mr. Mohamed would testify against his five co-defendants, two of whom would face the death penalty if convicted, or in what other ways he might help the government's investigation or its search for eight other fugitives, including Mr. bin Laden.

But Mr. Mohamed is the first suspect to publicly declare Mr. bin Laden's involvement in terrorism being planned and carried out at the highest levels of Al Qaeda.

The goal

Standing in court Friday in leg irons, his face looking drawn, Mr. Mohamed answered firmly and clearly the questions posed by Judge Sand, who asked him at one point about the goal of the conspiracy.

"The objective of all this," Mr. Mohamed replied, was "just to attack any Western target in the Middle East, to force the governments of the Western countries just to pull out from the Middle East, not to interfere."

Mr. Mohamed said in court that in the early 1980s he became involved with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that is dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian government and which prosecutors say eventually became absorbed into bin Laden's conspiracy.

Intelligence training

In the early 1990s, Mr. Mohamed said, he was introduced to Mr. bin Laden's organization, and in 1992, he trained Al Qaeda members in military and basic explosives training in Afghanistan. He said he also gave them intelligence training and taught them how to create cells or units "that could be used for operations."

Around the same time, he said, he worked closely with Mr. bin Laden's top aides, including Wadih el-Hage, an Arlington resident facing trial in New York, and helped Mr. bin Laden "create a presence in Nairobi, Kenya."

"A car business was set up to create income," Mr. Mohamed said. "Wadih el-Hage created a charity organization that would help provide Al Qaeda members with identity documents. I personally helped el-Hage by making labels in his home in Nairobi."

Mr. Mohamed said the targets he evaluated for Mr. bin Laden in 1993 included the buildings for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a U.S. agricultural agency, the French Cultural Center and the French Embassy.

Mr. Mohamed offered new detail on the web of relationships that he said existed between Mr. bin Laden's organization and other terrorist groups, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Mr. Mohamed said he set up a meeting between the head of Hezbollah and Mr. bin Laden. He said that Hezbollah also provided explosives training for Mr. bin Laden's group and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The Egyptian group obtained weapons from Iran, he said.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.