June 17 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. prosecutors in New York, the first to identify and charge Osama bin Laden three years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, were granted their request to dismiss the case against him, more than a month after he was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York today ordered that the entire case be voided against bin Laden, a Saudi who was killed May 1 at his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs during a 40-minute raid.
Bin Laden was first charged secretly by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan in June 1998 for allegedly organizing a global conspiracy to attack U.S. facilities and citizens.
After the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were hit by near-simultaneous bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, the U.S. filed an updated indictment against him in November 1998, charging him with directing those attacks and with the murders of 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens.
The indictment was first filed by prosecutors working for then-U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who had established the nation’s first terrorist prosecution unit after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and injured more than 1,000.
Prosecutors working with current U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed the court papers recommending the entire case against bin Laden be dismissed. The U.S. cited a four-page declaration filed by a Justice Department official describing efforts made by the U.S. to identify the person killed during the May 1 raid in Pakistan was indeed bin Laden, including DNA testing and evidence recovered at the compound.
The bin Laden case was also the first to describe a terrorist network that supported other groups by purchasing land for training camps, warehouses for explosives and weapons and providing currency to fund operations.
The indictment was also the first to identify al-Qaeda leadership. Those named with bin Laden on the later indictments include Muhammad Atef, a bin Laden lieutenant killed in Afghanistan in late 2001, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s leader.
In the bin Laden indictment, prosecutors would later describe how al-Qaeda operated shell corporations and its own media center in London.
Several al-Qaeda defectors testified at the 2001 trial in federal court in New York of four men charged with being part of a global conspiracy with bin Laden.
Trainer at Camps
One of those witnesses was Jamal al-Fadl, one of the terror group’s founders. Al-Fadl described how bin Laden sought to buy uranium from a former Sudanese government official in late 1993 and early 1994.
Another man, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan, testified he served as both a trainer at terrorist camps established in Afghanistan by the group and as bin Laden’s personal pilot.
Witnesses said al-Qaeda also forged alliances with other terrorist organizations such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as terrorist groups in Sudan, Eritrea, Bosnia, Croatia and the Philippines, the U.S. said.
Since 1998, prosecutors have repeatedly updated the bin Laden indictment to include other co-conspirators. Eventually, bin Laden was one of more than 20 defendants named in an indictment that ran 149 pages.
Prosecutors described bin Laden as operating as emir, or leader, of the terrorist group and said he conspired to carry out attacks against the U.S. as early as 1992, including on U.S. forces stationed in the Saudi Arabian peninsula after the first Gulf War.
The U.S. would eventually add a series of terrorist acts to the original indictment, including a decree by bin Laden to attack U.S. forces stationed in the Horn of Africa. Prosecutors said bin Laden directed al-Qaeda members and Somali tribesmen in an October 1993 ambush of military personnel in Mogadishu in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and 73 wounded, prosecutors said.
In May 2003, the U.S. added two men, Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso, to the indictment for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded more than 40.
Prosecutors said at the 2001 embassy trial that al-Qaeda changed its focus to attack the U.S. after the first Persian Gulf War when the U.S. military was stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Witnesses described at the trial how bin Laden and al-Qaeda forged alliances and conspired with a number of jihad organizations in Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and parts of India and Russia.
The history of the bin Laden investigation outlines U.S. efforts to track and prosecute international terrorism after the first World Trade Center bombing. Shortly after noon on Feb. 26, 1993, a bomb-laden van, parked in an underground garage, erupted, killing six and injuring at least 1,000 people.
Bin Laden was never charged in that attack. However, U.S. investigators tracking suspects found references to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, U.S. officials later said.
They also determined that Ramzi Yousef was the mastermind of the attack and stayed in an al-Qaeda safe house in Pakistan after he fled New York.
Prosecutors charged Yousef in 1993 with the bombing. He was arrested in February 1995 in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was also charged in February 1996 with a foiled scheme to detonate bombs aboard 12 jumbo jets over the Pacific in a 48-hour period. Prosecutors later named his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as being involved in the airline bombings plot. Mohammed was later charged with being an architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yousef was tried and convicted in federal court in New York in 1996 of all charges related to the World Trade Center bombing and the jet bomb plot. He was sentenced in January 1998 to 240 years in prison and is currently at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, under Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, that restrict contact with other people.
Yousef argued in court papers filed today that he has served almost his entire 16 years in solitary confinement and that his case deserves review by a federal judge. U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials have said the restrictions are necessary because “there is substantial risk that his communications will lead to death or serious bodily harm.”
“If the government could have its way, it would likely place SAMs on inmate Yousef for the rest of his life,” his lawyer Bernard Kleinman said in court papers.
Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Bharara’s office, declined to comment today.
The case is U.S. v. bin Laden, 98-CR-1023, 93-CR-539, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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