Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman Trial: 1995-96

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Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman Trial:

Defendants: Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, El Sayyid Nosair, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny, Victor Alvarez, Amir Abdelgani, Fadil Abdelghani, Tarig Elhassan, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Rodney Hampton-El, Fares Khallafalla, and Mohammed Saleh
Crimes Charged: All defendants: Seditious conspiracy; Nosair: Murder and assault; individual charges included solicitation and conspiracy to commit assassination or bombings, violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and weapons charges
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lynne F. Stewart, John Jacobs, Ramsey Clark, and Anthony Ricco
Chief Prosecutor: Mary Jo White
Judge: Michael B. Mukasey
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: January 30, 1995-January 17, 1996
Verdicts: Abdel Rahman: Guilty of conspiracy and solicitation to commit sedition, assassination, and attacks on U.S. military installations; Nosair: Guilty of conspiracy, assault, and murder; Not guilty on 2 counts of bombing conspiracy; El-Gabrowny: Guilty of assault and plotting to aid Nosair; Not guilty on 2 counts of bombing conspiracy; remaining defendants: Guilty of participating in the bombing conspiracy
Sentences: Abdel Rahman and Nosair: Life imprisonment; El-Gabrowny: 57 years imprisonment; Alvarez, Elhassan, and Hampton-El: 35 years imprisonment each; Abdelgani and Khallafalla: 30 years imprisonment each; Abdelghani: 25 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The rarely used antisedition statute was used successfully to prosecute and convict foreign terrorists.

Before a terrorist bomb exploded in the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, few Americans had ever heard of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric who preached militant Islamic doctrine from a Jersey City storefront mosque. He might have been an obscure figure in his New Jersey exile, but the sheik was well known to Islamic fundamentalists and security police in his native Egypt. Abdel Rahman had been acquitted of aiding the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He later fled prosecution on charges of fomenting a riot and came to the United States in 1990, despite the fact that his name was on a computerized list of suspected terrorists barred from entering the country.

As arrests followed the World Trade Center bombing, it was discovered that all but one of the suspects were followers of the cleric. Sheik Abdel Rahman's virulent anti-American sermons attracted a public scrutiny that was lacking before the explosion in New York. He was constantly surrounded by FBI agents and news hungry reporters. Although it was speculated that Abdel Rahman might be arrested for complicity in the bombing, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that too little evidence existed for an immediate indictment.

Sheik Arrested in Terrorist Plot

On July 2, 1993, however, Sheik Abdel Rahman was arrested after a tense standoff at the Jersey City mosque. He and 10 other men were indicted for plotting "a war of urban terrorism against the United States." Under a rarely used seditious conspiracy law, the Sedition Act of 1918, Abdel Rahman was charged with coordinating the group, whose alleged targets included the United Nations, New York's FBI office, and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The defendants were not charged directly in the World Trade Center bombing case, but prosecutors accused Abdel Rahman of giving final approval for the attack. The defendants were also accused of planning to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as several American politicians sympathetic to Israel.

Not all of the charges centered on unrealized plots. In a controversial 1991 New York state trial, El Sayyid Nosair had been convicted of gun possession and assault, but acquitted of murdering militant Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990. By claiming that he was involved in the newly uncovered plot, federal prosecutors indicted Nosair again for the Kahane murder without breaking the doublejeopardy rule against trying a defendant twice for the same crime. Borrowing a legal tactic used successfully against organized crime figures like John Gotti, the government charged Nosair under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, contending that the killing was part of a larger pattern of criminal activity.

Soon after the trial began on January 30, 1995, the defense was shaken by the news that Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, Abdel Rahman's translator, would plead guilty. Following a plea bargain agreement, Siddig Ali implicated all but one of his codefendants, including the sheik, whom he accused of approving the bombing targets. Outraged defense lawyers Lynne Stewart, John Jacobs, Ramsey Clark, and Anthony Ricco protested that Siddig Ali's recent deal with the government had denied them a chance to attack his credibility in their opening statements; they were demanding a mistrial when even more sensational news arrived. On the same day that Siddig Ali's plea bargain was announced, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was arrested in Pakistan. Yousef, the fugitive whom federal officials accused of directing the four men already tried and imprisoned for the World Trade Center bombing, was being returned to the United States to stand trial.

Bomb Factory Described in Testimony

Despite Siddig Ali's defection, the prosecution's case was still expected to be difficult to prove, for it relied heavily upon the testimony of an Egyptian-born U.S. government informant named Emad Salem, whose credibility and motives were fiercely challenged. Salem admitted on the witness stand that he had lied repeatedly to the FBI in order to impress the law enforcement agency of his usefulness. He also admitted demanding large amounts of money for working as an informer.

While under the FBI's employ, Salem had actively helped some of the conspirators, renting a Queens warehouse where he videotaped them mixing fuel oil and fertilizer into explosives. The FBI offered hours of recordings made by Salem in which the defendants implicated themselves in the bombing plot. Despite Salem's proximity to Abdel Rahman's inner circle, however, prosecutors offered as physical evidence only one taped conversation in which the sheik directly approved a terrorist action. Salem told Abdel Rahman that a wave of attacks was being planned and asked if the United Nations was a legitimate bombing target. Abdel Rahman replied that bombing the UN might be bad for Muslims because the institution was perceived to be a center for peace. He then told Salem to "find a plan" to inflict damage on the U.S. Army instead. Salem also spoke of bombing the FBI's New York headquarters, but the sheik told him not to proceed, adding that much preparation would be needed for such a target.

Prosecutors declared that the conversation was proof that Abdel Rahman was directing the plotters and approving targets. The defense responded that it was the informer Salem who was orchestrating the conversations, pointing out that the sheik instructed Salem not to carry out the attacks. The defense further argued that Abdel Rahman's suggestions of alternative targets were merely efforts to mollify the apparently excitable Salem, who had been presenting himself as a fervent religious disciple.

Salem's tapes and Siddig Ali's defection were not the only testimony presented against Abdel Rahman. Abdo Mohammed Haggag, a former aide to the sheik and one of the defendants, agreed to a plea bargain that resulted in conspiracy charges against him being dropped. Haggag stated that Abdel Rahman had approved a plot to assassinate President Mubarak, but that the plan was never carried out because the Egyptian president had canceled a trip to the United States. The defense, in response, accused Haggag of lying to obtain his freedom and to get revenge against the sheik, with whom he had had a falling out.

Defense Claims Religious Persecution

Throughout the trial, the defense argued that Abdel Rahman was a spiritual leader being prosecuted for his speech. The prosecution contended that the sheik had instead acted more like an organized crime boss, approving violent acts against his enemies and trying to ferret out informers from his organization. The trial slowed to a crawl as investigators offered scores of exhibits whose details allegedly proved conspiratorial relationships between the accused.

Defendant Rodney Hampton-El testified that he was lying when he had boasted of being able to obtain bomb detonators for Salem and Siddig Ali. In any case, Hampton-El claimed, he was under the impression that the bomb under discussion was being made to attack a New York warehouse full of weapons being stockpiled illegally for use against Bosnian Muslims, not against domestic U.S. sites named in the indictment against him. Victor Alvarez's attorney defended his client by characterizing him as a mentally handicapped cocaine addict, unable to grasp the full implications of helping fellow Muslims he was trying to impress.

Jury Convicts on 48 Charges

The trial, which involved testimony from 200 witnesses, went to jury deliberations the third week of September 1995. On Sunday, October 1, 1995, the 10 defendants were found guilty on 48 of 50 charges. Nosair and his cousin, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny, were cleared of complicity in the citywide bombing plot. They were convicted, however, of assault and conspiracy charges, including a plot to help Nosair escape from Attica prison and flee the country using fake passports. The other defendantsAlvarez, Hampton-El, Amir Abdelgani, Fadil Abdelghani, Tarig Elhassan, Fares Khallafalla, and Mohammed Salehwere all convicted of conspiracy and charges relating to the preparation of bombs to be used in the planned attacks.

The defendants remained silent when the verdicts were read. Before they were sentenced on January 17, 1996, however, each took the opportunity to declare his innocence. Sheik Abdel Rahman angrily denounced the United States and the trial proceedings for over an hour and a half before Judge Michael B. Mukasey cut him off. "This case is nothing but an extension of the American war against Islam," protested Abdel Rahman.

The judge was unimpressed. "You were convicted of directing others to perform acts which, if accomplished, would have resulted in the murder of hundreds if not thousands of people," Mukasey said, adding that the bombing of the World Trade Center would have seemed "insignificant" by comparison.

The blind cleric received a life sentence for conspiracy and solicitation to commit sedition, assassination, and attacks on U.S. military installations. Nosair, who was convicted of conspiracy, assault, and the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, also received a life sentence. El-Gabrowny was sentenced to 57 years imprisonment for assault and plotting to aid Nosair. The remaining defendants received sentences ranging from 25-35 years for their parts in the bombing conspiracy.

Controversies over alleged connections between politics, religion, and the legal system continued long after Sheik Abdel Rahman was incarcerated in a federal penitentiary. His supporters continued to press for the diabetic cleric's release on medical grounds, and to protest that he had been framed by the United States as a favor to the Egyptian government.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Dwyer, Jim et al. Two Seconds under the World. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.

Fried, Joseph P. "Closing Arguments Start Tuesday In Terror-Bomb Trial." New York Times (September 3, 1995): B30.

. "Sheik and Nine Followers Guilty of a Conspiracy of Terrorism." New York Times (October 2, 1995): Al.