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Terror Suspect Admits Trying to Kill Guard

Court: Prosecutors say the electrical engineer is the highest-ranking Al Qaeda member held in the United States.

April 04, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — An electrical engineer who prosecutors say is a confidant of Osama bin Laden's and a founding member of the Al Qaeda terrorist group pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempted murder in the stabbing of a federal prison guard.

Government lawyers said the attack was part of a plot to take hostages at the high-security unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

In a courtroom closed to the press, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim admitted that he stabbed Louis Pepe in the eye with a sharpened comb, a November 2000 attack that left the guard brain damaged.

"I am pleading guilty because I am guilty according to American law," said Salim, who is believed to be the highest-ranking member of Al Qaeda being held in the United States.

He could face life in prison when he is sentenced in August.

Salim, 45, has been in custody since September 1998. He is accused of plotting to murder American citizens in the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people. Salim still faces trial in that case.

Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Richard Lind, his lawyer, said Salim is not cooperating with the government in the embassy cases or other matters.

An indictment in the embassy bombings, however, shows the quality of the information prosecutors believe he possesses.

Salim allegedly acted as a business agent and financial advisor to Bin Laden, conducted sensitive missions to a number of countries on his behalf and managed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. According to court papers, Bin Laden and Salim worked to obtain the components of nuclear weapons.

U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts took the unusual step Wednesday of closing the courtroom to the public when Salim described the stabbing. The judge said she wanted to minimize the possibility of juror prejudice should Salim's plea not be legally acceptable and should Salim go to trial next week.

After Salim successfully pleaded guilty, Batts ordered a transcript of the proceedings to be released.

Salim, with a fresh haircut and wearing blue prison fatigues, conferred with his lawyer as he replied to the judge's questions.

Before the plea, Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Himmelfarb succinctly outlined the government's case.

The prosecutor said that during a trial the government would have presented the testimony of eyewitnesses, law enforcement officers and evidence gathered at the crime scene, including a ransom note with Salim's fingerprints on it.

The note said Muslims had captured the 10th floor of the prison and said the action had been taken because they were deprived of their legal rights.

In addition to attempted murder, Salim also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder the guard.

"In Nov. 1, 2000, I stabbed officer Pepe by a sharpened comb in his left eye," he told the court.

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