Defendants Given 25 Years to Life in N.Y. Terror Plot
Declaring that the plot could have caused casualties on a scale not seen in America since the Civil War, a federal judge Wednesday sentenced militant Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman to life in prison for directing a vast campaign of urban terrorism against the United States.
Nine co-defendants convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations, two commuter tunnels linking New York and New Jersey and the Manhattan headquarters of the FBI also received sentences ranging from 25 years to life in prison.
El Sayyid A. Nosair--who had also been found guilty of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League--received the other life term. Kahane was slain moments after he had delivered a speech in a Manhattan hotel in 1990.
“You are accused of heading a terrorist conspiracy in this country,” Judge Michael B. Mukasey told the 57-year-old blind sheik. “You are convicted of directing acts which, if accomplished, would have resulted in the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of people on a scale that makes the mind stagger.”
Mukasey said that the sentences he handed out were designed to be sure the defendants would never be in a position to carry out such a plot again.
Lecturing the cleric, Mukasey said that while America has been hospitable to people fleeing persecution--including tens of thousands of Muslims who are productive, loyal citizens--"some people use that freedom to engage in violence.”
“They mistake the freedom for weakness. That is a big mistake,” the judge said.
During a one-hour and 45-minute speech before Mukasey imposed his sentence, Abdel Rahman vowed a “revengeful” God would “scratch” America from the face of the Earth.
“God is great and he will be revengeful,” the cleric warned. “The United States of America is an infidel country.”
Speaking through a translator, Abdel Rahman attacked his trial as a “comedy,” Mukasey for being biased and the prosecution for subjecting religious speech to American politics.
The sheik’s bitterness spilled out with every sentence. As the confrontation continued, the judge warned Abdel Rahman to conclude his speech, telling the cleric’s lawyers that he had just five minutes left.
When the sheik had finished, Mukasey said it was obvious that the remarks were directed at an audience outside the courtroom and that he, as an officer of the court, had an “institutional interest in seeing to it the public was not misled.”
He reminded Abdel Rahman that the jury had convicted him not only for planning unparalleled terrorism, but of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a planned trip to the United States in 1993.
“You suggested robbing banks to raise money,” the judge lectured the sheik, further outlining his role in the bombing plot. “You were the person who sat with others and tried to ferret out who was the informant.”
Mukasey said that America had fought both militant fascism and Communism and “faced by militant terrorism, there is a will to prevail.”
During an eight-month-long trial that concluded in October, prosecutors charged that Abdel Rahman--a longtime enemy of Egypt’s current government--led an organization whose aim it was to wage a jihad, or holy war, against the United States because he considered it an enemy of Islam and he wanted to change U.S. policies in the Mideast.
The bomb plot was thwarted when FBI agents raided a garage in New York City where explosives were being mixed in huge barrels.
“Justice has been done,” Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said in Washington Wednesday. “These are tough sentences for heinous crimes. We will continue to fight terrorism and seek justice with every tool at our disposal.”
Even before the verdicts were announced, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were on high alert in New York and at strategic and diplomatic installations both in the United States and in the Middle East, according to U.S. counter-terrorism officials.
Police emergency trucks stood at the ready outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan’s Foley Square, and portable concrete bomb barriers were erected to stop car bombers.
U.S. officials said they feared that the lengthy sentences will spark attacks on American personnel and facilities, either in retaliation for the verdicts or to pressure the United States to free the prisoners.
“This marks the culmination of one of the two most sensitive cases of international terrorism ever conducted in this country,” a senior counter-terrorism official said, referring to the current case and previous convictions in the bombing of the World Trade Center. “There’s been such a buildup that I think we’d only be more surprised if there weren’t some reaction.”
The most vulnerable site abroad is Egypt, although Abdel Rahman has a strong following in countries as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“These are strong and appropriate sentences,” said U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White, whose office prosecuted the sheik and his followers.
White said that had the plot succeeded, it would have created “the mass destruction of our city and would have left the country and the rest of the world permanently scarred.”
In addition to the life terms imposed on Abdel Rahman and Nosair, Mukasey sentenced the other defendants to the following prison terms: Ibrahim Elgabrowny, 57 years; Clement Hampton-el, 35 years; Amir Abdelgani, 30 years; Fares Khallafalla, 30 years; Tarig El-Hassan, 35 years; Fadil Abdelgani, 25 years; Mohammad Saleh, 35 years and Victor Alvarez, 35 years.
The judge said that had the simultaneous bombings taken place, “it would have made the World Trade Center bombing seem insignificant by comparison.”
Four other defendants were convicted in the bombing of the trade center on Feb. 26, 1993, and are serving prison sentences of 240 years each.
As part of the overall conspiracy, the government charged that the sheik and his followers were responsible for planning the trade center explosion, but not actually carrying it out.
During the terrorism trial, 135 government witnesses testified and more than 125 secretly recorded audio and videotapes were played for jurors or transcripts of conversations were read to the panel.
The prosecution’s presentation of evidence rested heavily on a sometimes erratic FBI informant, Emad Ali Salem, a former Egyptian army officer who secretly taped conversations with the sheik and others. In addition, the FBI had videotape that showed some of the defendants mixing explosives in the garage.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this story.