The alleged mastermind of a campaign of bombings and assassinations pleaded guilty Monday to plotting a war of urban terrorism and accused his religious leader of inspiring and approving the plan.
Cutting a deal with prosecutors who had called him the ringleader, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali told a federal judge he is sorry for his involvement in a plot that “does not reflect Islam at all.”
Siddig Ali said Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman had given him a fatwa, or religious order, to kill Egypt’s president and to bomb the United Nations and bridges and tunnels linking New York City with New Jersey.
The plea halted the biggest terrorism trial in U.S. history at least temporarily, as defense lawyers for the sheik and 10 other defendants scrambled to see if it would be possible to salvage the proceedings.
The government alleged the conspiracy included plans to blow up the United Nations, FBI headquarters in New York and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and George Washington Bridge, used daily by tens of thousands of New York City commuters.
Prosecutors contend the only two acts actually carried out by the defendants and other unindicted co-conspirators were the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, which killed six and injured more than 1,000, and the assassination of militant Rabbi Meir Kahane.
One of the defendants in the terror trial, El Sayyid Nosair, was convicted in state court of weapons violations in the Kahane slaying but was acquitted of murder.
Siddig Ali said he and government informer Emad Salem originally had planned to bomb “military targets.” But “after hearing a sermon by the sheik regarding the United Nations, I asked the sheik for a fatwa to attack the United Nations, and I was told by the sheik it was permissible.”
Siddig Ali said Salem had told him he had been making bombs “at Nosair’s request” and Nosair had told him to kidnap former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Siddig Ali concluded his speech with an apology, saying he wanted to “send a clear message to all Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world that the acts that I personally was involved in with others do not represent Islam and do not reflect Islam at all, because God did not tell us to kill innocent people for his sake.”
Siddig Ali signed a cooperation agreement with the government, although prosecutors did not say whether he had agreed to testify against the others.
Judge Michael Mukasey told Siddig Ali he would face life in prison unless he follows through on his promise of “substantial cooperation.”
Siddig Ali cooperated with prosecutors briefly last year, but the deal broke down. He asked to reopen negotiations the week before the trial’s opening statements, prosecutors said in a letter to defense lawyers.
Lynne Stewart, lawyer for Abdel-Rahman, called the development a “complete surprise.”
The trial was called off for the day so defense lawyers could determine their next step.
Stewart said late Monday the defense had decided to ask the judge for a mistrial “based on judicial misconduct” because Mukasey had failed to notify the defense before the opening statements that Siddig Ali was talking to prosecutors.