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Hamdan 'not fit' for attacks

Sept. 11 mastermind Mohammed says the defendant was a driver, not a soldier. The defense rests.

August 02, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Casting himself as Al Qaeda's international terrorist team manager, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told jurors hearing the first war crimes trial here Friday that Salim Ahmed Hamdan was an illiterate servant never made privy to the group's "overseas operations."

A 16-page written account of Mohammed's response to questions posed by defense lawyers portrayed Hamdan as too "primitive" to be included in the elaborate schemes to bomb U.S. embassies in East Africa, attack the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen and execute the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.

It was another opportunity for Mohammed, the self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind known here as KSM, to trumpet his own role in those crimes and portray himself as the brains behind Al Qaeda.

Mohammed wrote that "as a member in Al Qaeda Council (Shoura), the highest executive committee in Al Qaeda," he was "certain of all who work in the field" of the international operations he directed. Hamdan, he added, "did not play any role."

Mohammed's statement was the last evidence presented in defense of Hamdan before attorneys for the former driver for Osama bin Laden rested their case.

Whether the words of the leading Al Qaeda figure will influence the six-member military jury remains to be seen. The panel of senior officers read the 30 pages of testimony from Mohammed and another "high-value detainee" here, Walid bin Attash, in a quiet conclusion to two weeks of trial.

The prosecution, which had called 14 witnesses through Thursday, including 10 federal agents, offered no rebuttal.

The military judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, scheduled closing arguments and jury instructions for Monday and said he expected deliberations to begin by midday.

Hamdan, 38, could face life in prison if convicted.

Much of the prosecution's case sought to portray Hamdan, who earned $200 a month driving Bin Laden, as a close and trusted associate who must have known of the organization's nefarious works abroad.

Defense lawyers spent less than a day presenting their case. Three of the eight defense witnesses had testified out of order earlier in the trial because of scheduling conflicts, and two senior Army officers testified in secret because their dealings with Hamdan have been deemed classified.

Three other defense witnesses spoke to the issue of whether an armed conflict with Al Qaeda existed before Oct. 7, 2001, when President Bush announced retaliatory strikes against the terrorist group's bases in Afghanistan. The defense is expected to contend in closing arguments that Hamdan could not have committed war crimes because there was no war going on at the time of most of the illegal activities of which he is accused.

FBI Special Agent Ammar Y. Barghouty, called to the witness stand briefly during the prosecution's case, told the court that Hamdan had agreed to testify against the suspected mastermind of the Cole bombing in 2000, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.

The high-value prisoner faces death penalty charges, and Hamdan's testimony may help the prosecution secure a conviction. Nashiri was one of three prisoners once held in secret CIA prisons abroad whom the Bush administration has acknowledged were subjected to waterboarding -- simulated drowning to the threshold of death -- during interrogation.

The statements of Mohammed and Bin Attash made clear their own roles in Al Qaeda terrorist strikes but described Hamdan as a simple driver and mechanic.

"He was not a soldier, he was a driver," Mohammed asserted. "He was not fit to plan or execute. But he is fit to change trucks' tires, change oil filters, wash and clean cars, and fasten cargo in pickup trucks."

Neither Mohammed nor Bin Attash agreed to give testimony in person, the court was told. Mohammed, who plans to act as his own attorney in the death penalty case against him here, expressed concerns about self-incrimination. Bin Attash initially agreed to meet with Hamdan's military lawyer, but after a week's contemplation informed him that his written responses sent on July 1 would suffice.

Earlier Friday, Allred, the judge, agreed to reduce two of the 10 elements of the charges against Hamdan and to consider eliminating another. Hamdan is charged with two "specifications" of conspiracy and eight of material support to terrorism.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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