Peter Pringle's America: What the sheik told the snitch

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THE US government is preparing another mass trial of militant Muslims, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric. Thousands of pages of evidence - detailing selected telephone taps, surveillance of cars and bugged meetings with the sheik and his followers - are now on view in the court in Manhattan, but this is a very different case from the one in which four Muslims were convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in which six people were killed.

No bomb went off. No act of terrorism was committed. No one died. The charges against the 15 men are that they were religious warriors involved in a plot to blow up a variety of buildings in New York, including the UN and the FBI headquarters.

While the government appears to have plenty of evidence on tape that such things were planned, and that some of the defendants had trained in a paramilitary camp in Pennsylvania while others had acquired explosives, detonators, timing devices and the like, the big question is about the sheik. Is there evidence that he was instrumental in the plot? Or is he a fundamentalist windbag on whom no greater crime can be laid than that he has exhorted his followers to hatred of the 'infidel' Americans?

The sheik is a self-exiled Egyptian and an outspoken critic of President Hosni Mubarak. He is 55 years old and the father figure - the FBI likes to call him the 'prince' or the 'emir' - for Muslim fundamentalist groups, and until his arrest last year he presided at several mosques across America. In interviews since his arrest he has spoken only in riddles and rhetorical questions about the charge that he conspired to wage a 'war of urban terrorism' against the United States. It is a charge he denies totally.

The government's case against him is based in large part on the dubious activities of an undercover informant, an ex-Egyptian army commando and intelligence officer named Emad Salem. Mr Salem has caused the FBI no end of problems - as finks inevitably do. He was always demanding more money and insisted that his name should never appear anywhere, which was not exactly what the FBI had in mind, since they wanted him in court as a witness. He claims to have warned the FBI about the World Trade Center bombing but says it took no notice, and he apparently made copies of all his conversations with FBI agents, keeping a watch on his masters as well as his victims. What he might do with this material on the stand is unnerving for the prosecution.

Prosecutors have a difficult time convincing juries of conspiracies nipped in the bud, and on the evidence revealed thus far, reasonable doubts could be entertained as to the criminal nature of the sheik's connections to the other accused. The government will try to show, through the sheik's writings and his speeches, that even if he were not directly involved in the planning of the bombings, he gave his approval to what was essentially a terrorist campaign.

The documents quote his speech in Los Angeles in 1992 as an example:

Follower: 'They accuse you of being crooked and being a terrorist. What is the meaning of these two expressions? And what is your position towards the accusation?'

Rahman: 'We welcome this accusation. And we have to be terrorists. . . . The Great Allah said, 'Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the enemies of Allah and your enemies'. Thus terrorism is derived from terror. That means we have to be terrorists.'

In another speech in his mosque in Brooklyn, he said: 'God has said, 'And prepare for them whatever you can of power'. If power is in the guerrilla warfare . . . there is power in city battles. The power is in anything the enemy is doing.'

Sheik Rahman will contend that he is a man of Allah who has done nothing more than interpret for his flock the true meaning of the Jihad, literally the 'striving' but often translated as the 'holy war' against the unbelievers.

When it came to details of the plot, the sheik always insisted he did not want to know. One of the accused explained to the FBI informant, 'He (the sheik) is not involved, this is how the sheik operates . . . don't tell him what you're doing, you ask him what is allowable and what is forbidden, this is his rule . . . that's it.'

Even so, as the plotters speculated wildly about targets, the FBI informant did ask for the sheik's views, and apparently taped the reply. Was bombing the United Nations halal (permitted under Islamic law), or was it harem (forbidden). According to prosecution documents, the sheik replied that blowing up the UN 'would not be forbidden, but it would muddy the waters for Muslims'.

'Do we do it?' asked the informant. 'No,' replied the sheik. 'Find a plan to inflict damage on the army. The American army. Because the United Nations would harm Muslims; harm them tremendously.'

'We keep it in the army?' the informant asked.

'Yeah, think of something else because the United Nations will be considered a centre for peace, and the Muslims would be considered against peace. It would make things tense. Actually, it would mess things up for Muslims.'

The informant then asked what he thought about blowing up the FBI headquarters. 'We'll talk about this . . . a little bit later.' When the sheik was told the plan was already in motion, he cautioned the informant: 'Slow down a little bit. The one who killed Kennedy was trained for three years.'

If this is the best the FBI has, it may not be enough.