Two years after the World Trade Center explosion in New York, the trial opened in Manhattan yesterday of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a Muslim cleric, and 11 others on charges of conspiring to wage a "war of urban terrorism" in America. In his opening statement, the federal prosecutor, Robert Khuzani, asserted that the cleric and his co-defendants had been caught planning a campaign of destruction in the US, "the likes of which the world has never seen". He told the jurors: "This is a case about war.The soldiers who fought the war are seated before you. They spoke of war. They planned destruction and death that any army would be proud of."
In what is being termed the most important terrorist trial in US history, prosecutors are expected to accuse Sheikh Abdel-Rahman and the co-defendants of plotting to blow up several New York City landmarks, including the United Nations building and tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan.
The 12 are also charged with helping behind the scenes in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, for which four men were tried and convicted in a separate trial last year. The explosion beneath one of the twin towers left six people dead and injured a thousand others.
White-bearded and blind, the 56-year-old Sheikh is believed by US authorities to have been the spiritual leader behind efforts over several years to launch an Islamic jihad, [violent struggle] against governments believed to be friends of Israel, including the US and Egypt. In writings and appearances before fundamentalist groups around the United States, the Sheikh is on the record as having advocated violence as a means towards punishing those considered to be the enemies of Islam.
Included in the compendium of charges against the defendants are allegations that some among them were also behind an attempt to assassinate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to the US in 1993, as well as the successful killing of radical New York Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.
Before the beginning of opening arguments yesterday in a trial that could last as long as a year, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman expressed confidence that he would be acquitted. "I am relaxed and not shaking", he remarked . "This is my chance to let the truth shine."
Relatively unused to terrorist attacks on their own soil, Americans were traumatised by the Trade Center attack.
Public shock was deepened by the subsequent allegations of the much wider plot to dynamite other New York landmarks. Another target was the FBI headquarters in the city.
The prosecution's case will principally depend upon testimony from Emad Salem, a retired Egyptian Army colonel, who infiltrated the Sheikh's organisation, posing as a security specialist, while acting as an FBI informant.
He is reported to have received $1.5m (£970,000) in payments from the FBI.
Mr Salem provided the FBI with video tape of a reconnaissance trip by one of the defendants to the Lincoln Tunnel, one of the proposed targets. He also set up a "safe-house" for the group in Queens, where the FBI was able to monitor the manufacture of the explosive devices destined for the attacks.
Prosecutors hope to convict the 12 on the basis of a Civil War-era anti-sedition law. The law requires demonstration only that the accused planned acts of criminal violence against the state but not that they were actually carried out.
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