Monday, July 6, 2015

Osama bin Laden aide gets life in prison for 1998 US embassy bombings

Africa embassy bombings: attacks that propelled Bin Laden into the limelight
Khaled al-Fawwaz, who prosecutors say help Bin Laden spread his message of war, convicted for his role in bombings in east Africa that left 224 dead
Khaled al-Fawwaz, who was born in Saudi Arabia, was extradited from Britain in 2012. Photograph: Elizabeth Williams/AP

A former top aide to Osama bin Laden has been sentenced to life in prison for conspiring in the deadly 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, with the judge rejecting his claims that he is not a violent man.

US district judge Lewis Kaplan said Khaled al-Fawwaz was an eager supporter of Bin Laden’s goals even before the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.

Analysis Africa embassy bombings: attacks that propelled Bin Laden into the limelight
Jason Burke: Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania allowed Saudi and al-Qaida to also claim leadership of a fragmented Islamist militant movement

Read more

Fawwaz, 52, turned toward victims of the bombings and spoke minutes before his sentence was announced

“I can’t find words to describe how terribly sad and sorry I am,” Fawwaz said. “I don’t support violence. ... I hope one day people will find other ways to live with their differences other than violence.”

Kaplan announced Fawwaz’s sentence after three victims spoke, including Ellen Karas, who was left blind by the attacks.

“I worship the same God as you,” she told the defendant. “But he is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God.”

Fawwaz lawyer Bobbi Sternheim had asked that he be sentenced to less than life in prison, saying he was less culpable than others.

In court papers, prosecutors said they proved at trial that Fawwaz was an al-Qaida leader who directed a military training camp in Afghanistan in 1991, led a terror cell in Kenya in 1993 and ensured bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the US reached the world.

At trial, assistant US attorney Sean Buckley told jurors that Fawwaz was No 9 on a list of al-Qaida members that was recovered by US special forces from an al-Qaida leader’s home after 9/11.

Buckley said at sentencing that Fawwaz was the last of the men who had been arrested in the case to face trial.

The Saudi Arabia-born Fawwaz was arrested in London weeks after the August 1998 attacks at the request of the United States but was not extradited from Britain until 2012.

He had been scheduled to stand trial with Abu Anas al-Libi, who was snatched off the streets of Libya in 2013, but Libi died in January after a long illness.

Another co-defendant, Egyptian lawyer Adel Abdul Bary, was sentenced in February to 25 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in what Kaplan called an “enormously generous plea bargain” that will enable him to be freed in about eight years. 


People look at buildings damaged by a terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 that killed 213 people, mostly Kenyan civilians. Photograph: Sayyid Azim/AP

When news broke of the double bombings in east Africa, it was not just western security services that suddenly began to take Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida group seriously. Many within the Islamist militant movement were impressed.

Until that moment, Bin Laden had been seen as something of a dilettante, a rich young man who had never experienced first-hand the tough, day-to-day battle in streets, safe houses and cells across the Middle East that Islamist militancy had meant until that point.

The Saudi-born organiser and propagandist had of course seen action during the 1979-89 war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but then so had thousands of other young men from across the Islamic world. When many veterans of that fight went on to spearhead brutal campaigns of violence in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan, Bin Laden went home to Jeddah and then into a relatively comfortable, safe exile in an Islamist-friendly Sudan.

But the east African attacks “made a lot of people sit up and take notice”, said one Libyan veteran activist four years after the strikes.

Founded in Pakistan in the late 1980s, al-Qaida had long been a marginal group without significant resources, manpower or an obvious strategy. The highest profile terrorist attacks of the 1990s – on the World Trade Center in 1993, in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan – had been the work of other groups.

Bin Laden had been tangentially linked to a strike on a hotel used by US servicemen in Yemen, and to violence in Somalia, but nothing else. His tirades against the west and calls for every Muslim to attack US citizens and interests wherever they could be found, issued after his return to Afghanistan in 1996, were controversial even within his own organisation, as one forthcoming memoir by a militant makes clear.

All that changed in 1998 with the East African bombings. In their aftermath, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles on poorly selected targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

The ill-judged response to the bombings made the Taliban, who had been initially wary of the extremist Arabs living in territory they had recently conquered, more sympathetic towards Bin Laden and his global agenda. This removed a key obstacle to further, more ambitious attacks.

The strikes, especially when followed by the attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole off Yemen in 2000, also allowed Bin Laden and his group to claim leadership of the fragmented militant movement. They became a favourite destination for volunteers, donations and, crucially, groups from all over the Islamic world seeking assistance with projects of their own. This laid the basis for the network of networks – the affiliates – that are still so important today.

The East African bombings also popularised the new conception of a conflict no longer limited by territorial boundaries. In the new globalised world of the late 1990s, with its satellite TV news channels, cheap flights, relatively open borders and nascent internet, this broader vision simply made more sense to aspirant militants from Morocco to Malaysia than the parochial vision of other groups active at the time.

The local struggles they had waged had all failed miserably, crushed by repressive authorities or undermined by flagging public support amid chaotic and apparently indiscriminate violence against other Muslims.

From the embassies in Africa, theoretically US sovereign territory, to an attack on a US warship at sea, to bombing the US in the “homeland” itself was an inevitable progression. We are still living with the consequences today.

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