A convicted terrorist testified Tuesday that a top aide to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden helped prepare him for a bombing attack on Los Angeles International Airport and that other guerrillas trained in Bin Laden's war camps planned to strike elsewhere in the United States.
If the allegations by Ahmed Ressam, who did not identify other U.S. cities allegedly targeted by terrorists, are proved true by federal authorities, they would mark a significant shift in the agenda of the world's most wanted terrorist.
Counter-terrorism authorities in the United States have long believed that Bin Laden has focused his jihad, or holy war, on overseas American targets such as the two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa in 1998 and U.S. destroyer Cole attacked last year in Yemen.
But Ressam, testifying in the trial of an accused co-conspirator in the LAX bomb plot, told a jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan how that may no longer be the case.
In a matter-of-fact, almost casual delivery, the 34-year-old prosecution witness testified in detail about how he and others in Bin Laden-financed camps in Afghanistan were taught how to attack electrical power grids, airports, railroads, large corporations, hotels and military installations during millennium assaults. They also were taught how to track down and assassinate political figures, he said.
Neither Ressam nor Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph F. Bianco ever mentioned Bin Laden by name. But Ressam said a man he knew only by the nom de guerre Abu Zubeida personally approved him for training in a Bin Laden jihad camp in early 1998, paid his expenses, and then, on Ressam's way to Canada to begin carrying out the plot, asked him for something in return.
"He asked me to send him some passports, some original passports . . . that he can use to give to other people who had come [to the camps] to carry out operations in U.S.," Ressam said of Zubeida.
And Zubeida gave him specific names to put on the passports, Ressam testified, ostensibly so the men could enter Canada and then slip across the border into the United States.
Testimony Confirms Fears, U.S. Official Says
Ressam's testimony offered the jurors a rare glimpse into the murky underworld of global Islamic terrorism from one of its own participants.
In Washington, a senior intelligence official said in an interview that the testimony confirmed the worst fears of the counter-terrorism community.
"We've suspected for some time that Al Qaeda [Bin Laden's organization] has tried to establish cells in the United States," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This confirms theories about how they go about their operational planning and that they are trying to establish a presence inside the U.S."
U.S. and European intelligence officials have designated Zubeida as one of Bin Laden's top lieutenants, a man who in recent years decided which Islamic militants should be allowed into the jihad training camps and for what purpose.
Ressam did not disclose whether he discussed his specific plans to bomb LAX during what he said were his many conversations with Zubeida.
Ressam, whose testimony resumes Thursday, is testifying in the trial of Mokhtar Haouari, one of three fellow Algerians charged with conspiring to help him in a plot to "punish America" just before New Year's Day 2000.
That plot was thwarted when a U.S. Customs inspector stopped Ressam at a border crossing in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999. In the trunk of his rental car were more than 130 pounds of explosives and four homemade timing devices.
He was convicted April 6 in Los Angeles and weeks later decided to cooperate with federal authorities in their ongoing investigation into the LAX plot and a wider probe into global Islamic terrorism.
Defendant Says He Wasn't Part of Plot
Haouari has pleaded not guilty, saying through his lawyer that he has engaged in many acts of small thievery, including some with Ressam. But he has said he never knowingly aided Ressam in a terrorist plot.
Ressam appeared to contradict that, but not completely. He went on at length about how Haouari engaged in credit card fraud and in the trafficking of false passports and other documents.
He also testified that Haouari knowingly helped him engage in an act of terrorism, providing him with $3,000 in Canadian dollars and a fake Canadian license so he could sneak across the border. Haouari also sent a third man from New York to Seattle to provide Ressam with additional cash, a ride wherever he wanted and translation, since he speaks little English, said Ressam, who testified with the aid of an Arabic translator.
Ressam also said he spoke to Haouari about life in the jihad camps upon his return from Afghanistan in the spring of 1999. Camp life wasn't easy, he recalled telling Haouari, 32, but it was worth it for a young Algerian who had expressed an interest in joining the cause of Islamic militancy.
"You will have some difficulty at the beginning but then you get used to it," Ressam recalled saying. "You learn a lot of military things, like explosives, weapons."
He testified that Haouari said he wanted to go too.
Ressam also acknowledged that he never told Haouari or another alleged co-conspirator, Abdelghani Meskini, of his specific plans to place a suitcase bomb in a crowded terminal at LAX, because he was taught in the camps to never disclose the whole plot to underlings in order to guarantee its secrecy.
But Ressam did clearly convey his intentions, he said. "I said: 'Mokhtar, I'm not going to America for tourism. I am going on some very important and dangerous business.' "
Ressam said that Haouari confirmed that he understood that, telling Ressam that his plans involved shteah, an Algerian word for dance.
"Whenever there's something that involves fear and danger, you say it is something that makes you dance," Ressam told the court.
During Ressam's testimony, Haouari occasionally fidgeted but remained quiet. Last week, in the first few days of the trial, he swore at prosecutor Bianco and, on another day, punched himself unconscious. He faces up to 85 years in prison if convicted on all seven felony counts.
Much of Ressam's time on the stand was spent describing his life. He said he had wanted to join the jihad even before leaving Algeria and his job working at his father's coffee shop. He left in 1992 for Corsica, France, and then to Canada in 1994, where he fell in with other Algerian expatriates and supported himself by "welfare and theft," he said.
In 1997, after some other Algerians returned from the camps with stories to tell, Ressam said he decided to go himself. He said he got help from Abderraouf Hannachi, whom authorities have identified as a leader of the Montreal mosque at which Ressam worshiped.
Ressam Testifies About Life in Camps
Hannachi, Ressam testified, put him in contact with Abu Zubeida, whom Ressam described as "the person in charge of the camps."
"He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you," said Ressam, adding that Zubeida paid for all expenses at the camps and made travel arrangements for those coming and going. Zubeida, at his way station in near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, sent Ressam on the road into the camps with a letter he wrote in Afghani, an Afghani guide, local clothes and instructions to grow a beard so he could blend in.
Ressam arrived at the camp, Khalden, in April 1998, just after a jihad leader had issued a fatwa, or holy decree, calling on all Muslims to "fight Americans and hit their interests everywhere," Ressam recalled.
In response to Bianco's questions, Ressam spent almost an hour giving the following account of life in the camps:
Ressam spent six months at Khalden learning sabotage, urban warfare, explosives and other terrorist tactics along with fighters from Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Turkey, Chechnya and Sweden.
The men were split into cells based on nationality and fired weapons and detonated explosives bought from the Taliban, the ruling party in Afghanistan that refuses to extradite Bin Laden to the U.S. on charges of orchestrating the embassy bombings, which killed 224 people.
Out of about 100 men at the camp, 30 were Algerian, and they were separated into smaller groups to fight in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Ressam's band of six men was told to return to Canada and rob a bunch of banks to raise money "to carry out an operation in America . . . an airport" before the millennium.
Other groups were planning similar terrorist attacks in Europe, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere against the U.S and Israel.
Ressam then went for six weeks of advanced explosives training at a second camp, Toronta, and returned to Canada with $12,000 from a camp leader named Al Montaz and orders to use the money to set up an apartment for his fellow conspirators and to buy weapons. The other five men, who went by the aliases Abu Ahmed, Hakim, Mustapha, Karim and the cell leader, Fodail, never made it to Canada. So Ressam turned to Haouari and Meskini, he said, for help.
On Tuesday, law enforcement and intelligence sources confirmed that they are seeking to question the five men Ressam named as his conspirators in the LAX plot. They are acting on other information provided by Ressam, who testified that he also gave up the names of camp "leaders and trainers" and many other attendees.
Ressam said he tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Canadian passports to Zubeida, and that he never found out what happened to the men.
"Did they ever get to the United States?" Bianco asked.
"I do not know," Ressam replied.