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U.S.: Bin Laden Case Latest Example Of Terrorism On Trial

  • Robert McMahon

Witnesses have begun to testify in a trial that U.S. prosecutors hope will prove the existence of a network of terrorists intent on attacking American targets. The start of this trial closely followed the completion of another uncommon proceeding -- the Lockerbie bombing case -- in which a Scottish court convicted a Libyan intelligence officer in a terror attack. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon looks at this new judicial approach to fighting terrorism.

New York, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A courtroom in New York has begun hearing testimony about the inner workings of a notorious terrorist network.

A U.S. government witness, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, at hearings last week, told of how suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden organized his al Qaeda group after declaring a religious war against the United States in the early 1990s. Al-Fadl testified that bin Laden set up training sites to instruct operatives how to use explosives. He mentioned at least one attempt to purchase uranium, which is used to make nuclear weapons.

U.S. prosecutors hope al-Fadl's testimony will help convince a federal jury to convict four bin Laden associates of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Bin Laden and 12 other suspects in the case remain at large.

Like the recent Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands, the case is being followed closely by legal scholars and foreign policy experts to see where the evidence leads. There are some, like Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who say the Lockerbie case proved the futility of responding to terrorism with ordinary criminal justice procedures.

Luttwak wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week that the resources used to mount a legal case would have been better employed in pursuing intelligence about the workings of a suspected terrorist like bin Laden.

But in interviews with RFE/RL, a number of other international policy experts strongly supported the enhanced role of the courts in fighting terrorism.

Jessica Stern is a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She is writing a book about terrorism inspired by religious belief. She said a legal proceeding against someone like bin Laden can be a very effective way of gathering intelligence.

"I think the bottom line is that sanctions, diplomatic approaches, military approaches and using the courts are all important. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Using the courts, it turns out we learn all kinds of things about terrorist groups that we might not otherwise know."

In the Lockerbie case, a Libyan intelligence officer was found guilty in the bombing of a passenger jet in 1988. The conviction was based on evidence that placed the suspect in Malta at a time when an explosive device was planted in a suitcase. A second Libyan suspect was found not guilty for lack of evidence.

Before the bin Laden case, U.S. prosecutors gained the conviction of Islamic militants connected with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and with a failed plot to blow up the United Nations and other New York sites.

Such cases serve as a more valid approach to unmasking terrorists because they are committed to testing theories out in the open, says David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat and president of the International Peace Academy, a non-governmental organization based in New York. Malone says a well-constructed court case against suspected terrorists can be more fair and effective than, for example, a strike by a cruise missile.

"As long as terrorism was dealt with only by intelligence services in shadow more than in light, it was extremely difficult for the public, the media, even many in government unrelated to intelligence to know what was actually going on. We're all finding out a great deal more about it now."

Malone says if the international community, for example, wants to convince the population of Afghanistan that bin Laden is a terrorist, the best way to do this is through fair judicial processes.

For the time being, the major powers are intent on using multiple weapons to undermine terrorism. The UN Security Council recently toughened sanctions against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime to force it to turn over bin Laden for extradition.

The council has stressed that the sanctions are targeted at the Taliban leadership. But, as in the case of Iraq, under sanctions for 10 years now, there is widespread concern that such measures have a greater impact on civilians than on the ruling elite believed to be sponsoring terrorism.

And for those terrorists operating beyond state control, sanctions are less effective.

Ruth Wedgwood, an expert on international law at the Council on Foreign Relations, says a legal proceeding can help to expose and weaken terrorist networks.

"What terrorist networks thrive on is an attempt to secure political support and insofar as the careful proof and the lingering attention of a trial can help to horrify the world community at the tactics terrorist networks use, it's very useful as kind of a rallying point to undermine their legitimacy."

Wedgwood says there is growing intolerance among UN members for terrorist crimes, even those once seen as justified because they were politically motivated. She points to two recent UN conventions, in 1997 and 1999, that say terrorist bombing and financing of terrorism should be forbidden by all UN members.

Such international consensus will be crucial to combat what experts say is the shift from state-sponsored terrorism to groups operating on a lower level. The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, told a U.S. Senate Committee last week that terrorists are becoming more technically sophisticated and harder to trace.

"The threat from terrorism is real, it is immediate, and it is evolving. State-sponsored terrorism appears to have declined over the past five years, but transnational groups -- with decentralized leadership that makes them harder to identify and disrupt -- are emerging. We are seeing fewer centrally controlled operations, and more acts initiated and executed at lower levels."

But legal experts like Wedgwood are hopeful of what a trial against terrorists can accomplish. Wedgwood said the presentation of evidence in the bin Laden case, for example, has so far gone much smoother than the Lockerbie case at the same stage.

"One would never have supposed three years ago that you would have this kind of inside testimony by folks that were formerly adherents but who had left the cult of terror."

As some experts suggest, perhaps not the blunt instruments of sanctions or military force but the widely admired Western standards of justice will in the end prove most effective against terrorists.