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Terrorist Says Plans Didn't End With LAX

July 04, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A convicted terrorist testified Tuesday that a top aide to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden helped prepare him for a bombing attack on Los Angeles International Airport and that other guerrillas trained in Bin Laden's war camps planned to strike elsewhere in the United States.

If the allegations by Ahmed Ressam, who did not identify other U.S. cities allegedly targeted by terrorists, are proved true by federal authorities, they would mark a significant shift in the agenda of the world's most wanted terrorist.

Counter-terrorism authorities in the United States have long believed that Bin Laden has focused his jihad, or holy war, on overseas American targets such as the two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa in 1998 and U.S. destroyer Cole attacked last year in Yemen.

But Ressam, testifying in the trial of an accused co-conspirator in the LAX bomb plot, told a jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan how that may no longer be the case.

In a matter-of-fact, almost casual delivery, the 34-year-old prosecution witness testified in detail about how he and others in Bin Laden-financed camps in Afghanistan were taught how to attack electrical power grids, airports, railroads, large corporations, hotels and military installations during millennium assaults. They also were taught how to track down and assassinate political figures, he said.

Neither Ressam nor Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph F. Bianco ever mentioned Bin Laden by name. But Ressam said a man he knew only by the nom de guerre Abu Zubeida personally approved him for training in a Bin Laden jihad camp in early 1998, paid his expenses, and then, on Ressam's way to Canada to begin carrying out the plot, asked him for something in return.

"He asked me to send him some passports, some original passports . . . that he can use to give to other people who had come [to the camps] to carry out operations in U.S.," Ressam said of Zubeida.

And Zubeida gave him specific names to put on the passports, Ressam testified, ostensibly so the men could enter Canada and then slip across the border into the United States.

Testimony Confirms Fears, U.S. Official Says

Ressam's testimony offered the jurors a rare glimpse into the murky underworld of global Islamic terrorism from one of its own participants.

In Washington, a senior intelligence official said in an interview that the testimony confirmed the worst fears of the counter-terrorism community.

"We've suspected for some time that Al Qaeda [Bin Laden's organization] has tried to establish cells in the United States," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This confirms theories about how they go about their operational planning and that they are trying to establish a presence inside the U.S."

U.S. and European intelligence officials have designated Zubeida as one of Bin Laden's top lieutenants, a man who in recent years decided which Islamic militants should be allowed into the jihad training camps and for what purpose.

Ressam did not disclose whether he discussed his specific plans to bomb LAX during what he said were his many conversations with Zubeida.

Ressam, whose testimony resumes Thursday, is testifying in the trial of Mokhtar Haouari, one of three fellow Algerians charged with conspiring to help him in a plot to "punish America" just before New Year's Day 2000.

That plot was thwarted when a U.S. Customs inspector stopped Ressam at a border crossing in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999. In the trunk of his rental car were more than 130 pounds of explosives and four homemade timing devices.

He was convicted April 6 in Los Angeles and weeks later decided to cooperate with federal authorities in their ongoing investigation into the LAX plot and a wider probe into global Islamic terrorism.

Defendant Says He Wasn't Part of Plot

Haouari has pleaded not guilty, saying through his lawyer that he has engaged in many acts of small thievery, including some with Ressam. But he has said he never knowingly aided Ressam in a terrorist plot.

Ressam appeared to contradict that, but not completely. He went on at length about how Haouari engaged in credit card fraud and in the trafficking of false passports and other documents.

He also testified that Haouari knowingly helped him engage in an act of terrorism, providing him with $3,000 in Canadian dollars and a fake Canadian license so he could sneak across the border. Haouari also sent a third man from New York to Seattle to provide Ressam with additional cash, a ride wherever he wanted and translation, since he speaks little English, said Ressam, who testified with the aid of an Arabic translator.

Ressam also said he spoke to Haouari about life in the jihad camps upon his return from Afghanistan in the spring of 1999. Camp life wasn't easy, he recalled telling Haouari, 32, but it was worth it for a young Algerian who had expressed an interest in joining the cause of Islamic militancy.

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