Followers of Bin Laden in court over bombs plot

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The Independent Online

Chanting "Allahu Akbar" at regular intervals from within their iron cage, a group of alleged supporters of Osama bin Laden, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorist suspects, appeared in court yesterday to be charged with plotting to attack Americans, Israelis and other tourists in Jordan over the turn of the millennium.

Amid tight security at the opening of their trial in Jordan's State Security Court in Amman, 14 men and one 17-year-old schoolboy were accused of collecting bomb-making equipment and using funds from burglaries and cheque frauds to plan the attacks.

Thirteen other defendants - including a Muslim cleric reportedly based in London - were charged in absentia. Those in court, who were mostly Jordanians of Palestinian origin but included an Iraqi and an Algerian, pleaded not guilty to the charges, some of which carry the death penalty.

The hearing, which was later adjourned to 7 May, was devoted to the reading of an indictment by the Jordanian military prosecutor general, Lt-Col Mahmoud Obeidat, who said that the men - 28 in all - were "affiliated with an outlawed group" involved in a conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks in Jordan.

Although he did not name Osama bin Laden during the 75-minute hearing, he told reporters earlier that the suspects were linked to al-Qaedah - "The Base", a militant body allegedly headed by the dissident Saudi millionaire, and the International Islamic Front.

Mr bin Laden, thought to be in hiding in Afghanistan, is wanted by the US authorities for the 1998 bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people died.

Jordanian and FBI officials believe the suspects planned to attack Mount Nebo - a site visited by the Pope last month - and a Christian settlement on the river Jordan.

Most defendants refused to accept court-appointed law-yers, and declined to enter pleas. Instead they described the court - a three-judge tribunal - as "infidel". It was left to the court to conclude that they were pleading innocence. One defendant, Issam Barqawi, 40, shouted: "We are not terrorists as you claim. We are the followers of God and want his Sharia [Islamic] laws to replace those you enforce, which are submissive to Americans, Jews and Christians."

According to a report, the indictment sheet said the interrogation of the 15 suspects led Jordanian investigators to detonators, explosives and ammunition hidden at a farm outside Amman. It said the plotters began collecting the material in 1996 from various Arab capitals, including Damascus and Baghdad. Many of the suspects had received military training in camps in Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Jawad Younis, a lawyer for several of the men, said the state's case had more to do with politics than the law.