Dud start for NY bomb trial defence: Lawyers for four accused of Trade Center attack begin to chip away at evidence

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS for the four men accused of bombing the World Trade Center a year ago opened their defence yesterday by trying to show that any books on bomb-making published in the Middle East that the defendants had in their possession were of little import because similar volumes are readily available in the United States.

The defence strategy, clearly, is to pick away at the mountain of circumstantial evidence that has been produced during more than four months of testimony by 207 prosecution witnesses, but it was a feeble beginning.

First on the stand was a private investigator called by the lawyer for Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian who has asked for political asylum. The investigator had been rummaging around in bookshops on Fifth Avenue, where he found the mercenaries' magazine Soldier of Fortune, and had answered an advertisement for bomb-making books and videotapes that were duly sent to him.

One video showed how to make a bomb out of ammonium nitrate, the chemical that prosecutors allege was probably one of the ingredients of the trade centre bomb, but the tiny sample on the video seemed rather limp as it blew up a piece of wood in a forest clearing. Another looked more likes a child's chemistry set. The size of the trade centre bomb, which ripped through the underground floors, killing six and injuring more than 1,000, was estimated at between 1,000lb and 1,600lb and was packed in a rented van, according to the prosecution.

The case against Mr Ajaj appears anyway to be one of the weakest. His defence is that he was an Islamic militant involved in the Afghan war, not a bomber. When he entered the country in September 1992, he was carrying four passports under four different names and had six volumes of military manuals showing how to make bombs. The fingerprints of another alleged co- conspirator, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, were on some pages in two of the manuals. Mr Yousef, a central character in the bomb plot according to the prosecution, skipped the country the day of the bombing and remains a fugitive.

The prosecution alleges that the bomb was carried into the trade centre in a yellow van rented by the lead defendant, Mohammed Salameh, 26, a Palestinian immigrant who appears to have been an associate of Mr Yousef. Witnesses have given persuasive evidence that Mr Salameh also rented a storage locker in New Jersey where bomb-making chemicals were delivered in the months before the blast.

The two other defendants are Mahmud Abouhalima, an Egyptian-born limousine driver accused of helping to mix the explosives and transport the bomb, and Nidal Ayyad, a US citizen of Palestinian origin, who is accused of buying the chemicals.

Thus far, no witnesses have placed any of the defendants in the trade centre at the time of the explosion. In addition, bomb experts have been unable to say with precision that the chemicals found in Mr Salameh's locker were the same as those used in the bomb.