Terror trial openings describe al Qaeda world

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The U.S. government opened its first war crimes prosecution Tuesday with a narrative of Osama bin Laden's driver overhearing his boss offer an eerie post-mortem in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks:

''If they hadn't shot down the fourth plane, it would've hit the dome,'' declared Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone.

And so with his first words to a military jury, the Pentagon prosecutor conjured up a conversation from inside the world of al Qaeda, revealed by the accused, driver Salim Hamdan. Bin Laden told his deputy, Ayman al Zawahari, that U.S. forces — not heroic passengers — brought down United Airlines Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11 before terrorist hijackers could slam it into ''the dome,'' of the Capitol building.

Hamdan, 37, of Yemen is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terror for allegedly serving as the al Qaeda leader's driver, sometime bodyguard and weapons courier.

Prosecutors put him at the heart of the conspiracy — driving bin Laden to a meeting with some of the 9/11 co-conspirators, to an al Jazeera interview, to a Ramadan feast at a paramilitary training camp to "further recruit and indoctrinate young individuals for their organization.''

Defense attorneys cast him as a nobody, an orphan who left the poverty of Yemen for Afghanistan and became bin Laden's $200-a-month driver because "he had to earn a living, not because he had a jihad against America.''

Moreover, the defense contends that Hamdan offered to help the United States while in Afghanistan.

Stone called the driver a trusted insider who, as early as 1998, after the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, whisked bin Laden from an Afghan training camp ahead of a series of retaliatory U.S. strikes. ''By the accused's help,'' said Stone, ``we missed.''

The spectator's gallery was nearly half-empty as the two sides addressed a military jury of six U.S. colonels and lieutenant colonels, whose names are withheld by order of the judge.

The Pentagon was bringing in some 30 international and American journalists later in the day to watch a slice of the historic trial.

Hamdan sat somberly in traditional Yemeni garb, stroking a wisp of a beard while the Pentagon prosecutor in Navy whites laid out the government's case, for which the Pentagon seeks life in prison.

''You will not see evidence from the government that the accused fired a shot,'' Stone said. "What you will see is testimony regarding the accused's role in al Qaeda, how he became a member of al Qaeda and helped, facilitated and provided material support for that organization.''

Seattle defense attorney Harry Schneider, in a black suit and red tie, followed and described an entirely different Hamdan — a fringe character being prosecuted in the place of his boss.

''Both Osama bin Laden and Mr. Hamdan are Muslim. So what?,'' Schneider said. "There is no evidence that he espoused, embraced, believed extremist Islamic beliefs. He needed a job. He was offered a job. We are here only because he took the job.

"He was not, and is not and never has been a terrorist engaged in the planning, in the organization, in the implementation or the execution of terrorist acts.''

Schneider lamented the ''horrible crimes'' ever-present in the war court — the 1998 embassy bombings, the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole and the 2001 attacks.

"This man — the only man before you in this trial — did not commit those crimes.''

Opening arguments lasted about two hours and the Pentagon called its first witness, Army Maj. Hank Smith, to describe taking custody of Hamdan in November 2001, soon after his capture at a checkpoint near Taktapol, Afghanistan, by American allies.

The government also entered its first exhibit at trial, a map of Afghanistan.

The war court judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, gaveled open the session a day after issuing a ruling that excluded from trial testimony the results of FBI and other interrogations of Hamdan in Bagram, Afghanistan, on grounds they were coerced.

Allred has yet to decide whether to allow the FBI's al Qaeda expert to testify about Hamdan's May 2003 interrogations at Guantanamo.

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