A key confidant of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman turned against him Monday, charging that the blind Egyptian cleric personally authorized a plot to bomb the United Nations and two New York tunnels and to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak--all to violently protest U.S. Middle East policy.
The decision of Siddig Ibrihim Siddig Ali to become a government witness was a major victory for federal prosecutors in the week-old conspiracy trial of the sheik and his followers.
Siddig Ali--a 34-year-old Sudanese national who acted as the sheik’s bodyguard and later as his translator--is in the position to confirm damaging testimony by the chief informant in the case, Emad Ali Salem, a former Egyptian army officer who also acted as the sheik’s bodyguard.
In a dramatic guilty plea with the jury not present, Siddig Ali said he had a central role in the alleged plot.
Siddig Ali said he “deeply and sincerely” regretted all his acts and wanted to send a message to Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world.
“The acts that I was personally involved in with others does not represent Islam and does not reflect Islam at all,” he told U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey. “God did not tell us to kill innocent people for his sake. He did not ask us to do that, and Islam does not teach that at all.”
The plea halted the biggest terrorism trial in U.S. history for the day as defense lawyers for the sheik and 10 other defendants regrouped. Lynne Stewart, lawyer for Abdel Rahman, said: “I think we do feel we have been sandbagged.”
Some legal experts believed Siddig Ali’s decision to cooperate could bring pleas from more defendants and could shorten what was originally forecast to be a nine-month trial.
The current trial follows the conviction last year of four other defendants--including three followers of the sheik--for bombing the World Trade Center. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in that massive explosion on Feb. 26, 1993. Siddig Ali helped arrange the flight from the United States of a principal planner of the attack, Mahmud Abouhalima, who was eventually captured in Egypt, returned for trial and convicted.
Siddig Ali told the court on Monday that he helped test the explosive that was later planted in the trade center’s garage, though at the time, he did not know the target.
As part of his guilty plea, the defendant read a statement outlining his participation in a multi-target plot. It served as a preview of his likely testimony when he is called as a prosecution witness.
Siddig Ali charged that the sheik had given him a “ fatwah or a verdict” for killing Mubarak during a planned visit by the Egyptian leader to the United States in 1993. The trip was canceled after authorities learned of the plan.
“I had a discussion with the sheik regarding the bombing of military targets in the United States,” he continued. “The sheik said that such bombings were permissible according to Islam.”
Siddig Ali said he kept Abdel Rahman informed as bombs were being assembled to attack the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels linking New York with New Jersey, and the Manhattan field office of the FBI.
The plot called for the explosions to go off within minutes of each other, Siddig Ali said, followed by an escape of the bombers to the Philippines. He said two co-conspirators did a dry run through the Holland Tunnel, stopping their cars and switching vehicles to perfect their escape.
He said at one point the terrorists planned to target armories but then switched to a plan to attack the United Nations by placing a bomb in a car and driving it into the U.N. garage. Siddig Ali said he received assistance from representatives of an unnamed foreign government in connection with access and surveillance of the garage and the use of diplomatic license plates.
Siddig Ali’s plea came before lawyers for the other defendants had entered court Monday. It was learned that about 12 days into the jury selection process he had passed a note to prosecutors saying he wished to cooperate with the government.
It was not the first time the defendant had discussed making a deal. Last June, he sent word from his jail cell that he wanted to cooperate. Negotiations with government lawyers eventually collapsed, though Siddig Ali reportedly was debriefed over a period of several weeks.
During the hearing on Monday, Judge Mukasey outlined the charges against the defendant and the potential penalties he faced.
“In the aggregate, what you are looking at is the prospect of life imprisonment,” the judge told Siddig Ali. “The only way that can be avoided is if I get a letter from the government saying that you have provided substantial cooperation. If I do, then I am free to impose any sentence I wish. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” Siddig Ali replied.
Stewart, Abdel Rahman’s lawyer, said that before opening statements began on Jan. 30, she and other defense attorneys learned that a new lawyer was appointed to represent Siddig Ali. While unaware of discussions with prosecutors, lawyers grew suspicious because Siddig Ali was isolated from the other defendants.
Stewart said the sheik was not surprised by Siddig Ali’s plea.
“He asked me on a regular basis ‘has Siddig gone back over to the government again?’ ” Stewart added.
Goldman reported from New York, Jackson from Washington.