Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine other militant Muslims were convicted on Sunday of conspiring to carry out a terrorist campaign of bombings and assassinations intended to destroy the United Nations and New York landmarks, kill hundreds of people and force America to abandon its support for Israel and Egypt.
Climaxing the biggest terrorism trial in the nation’s history, a federal jury that had deliberated over seven of the last nine days returned to a heavily guarded courtroom in Manhattan and pronounced the 10 defendants guilty on 48 of 50 charges.
It was a sweeping second victory for prosecutors in a trilogy of trials stemming from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which left six dead and terrorism at the fore of American consciousness. The defendants were not accused of that bombing, but prosecutors said four men convicted last year, and two to be tried next year, were co-conspirators of those convicted on Sunday.
The aim of the conspiracy, according to prosecutors who had no actual explosion or killing to show jurors and who relied heavily on secret tapes and a shady informer, was to be a cataclysmic “day of terror”: five bombs that were to blow up the U.N. headquarters, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and 26 Federal Plaza, the government’s main office building in New York.
“Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” The word rang out again and again as a jury of six women and six men, who had heard eight months of testimony, confronted the soberfaced defendants.
Abdel Rahman, 57, a blind Egyptian cleric who came to this country in 1990 and attracted a following of Islamic fundamentalists with his fiery denunciations of U.S. policies in the Middle East, was found guilty of directing a conspiracy to wage “a war of urban terrorism” against America and of plotting to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Abdel Rahman, his red clerical cap offering a bright dash of color at the cluster of defense tables, showed no emotion as Mukasey read from the jurors’ verdict sheet.
Another defendant, El Sayyid A. Nosair, was convicted of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990, an assassination once regarded as a crazed gunman’s isolated attack but later portrayed by prosecutors as the first blow in a four-year terrorist agenda. Nosair was acquitted of the murder in a state trial in 1991, but was jailed on related weapons charges. Legal experts, citing many precedents, said Sunday’s conviction did not constitute double jeopardy.
All 10 defendants were convicted under a rarely used Civil War-era seditious conspiracy charge - in this case, of plotting assassinations and bombings as part of a Jihad, or Holy War, to undermine U.S. support for Egypt, whose secular government is anathema to Abdel Rahman and his followers, and Israel, a sworn enemy of many Islamic radicals.
In the only acquittals, Nosair and Ibrahim El-Gabrowny were found not guilty of any direct role in the bomb plot, although they were convicted of the broader conspiracy. Abdel Rahman and Nosair face life in prison, and the others face up to 20 years for the most serious charge against them, seditious conspiracy. They are to be sentenced early next year.
In a case that began with government surveillance of potential terrorists even before the World Trade Center explosion in February 1993, the prosecution charged that Abdel Rahman became the ideological leader - and at times the strategic leader - of a conspiracy to bomb targets and assassinate leaders that year.
Prosecutors said an FBI informant, Emad Salem, infiltrated the plot and made hundreds of secret tapes to ensnare the conspirators, many of whom were arrested in June 1993.
The defense argued that the government and its informant had trumped up the conspiracy - and had falsely linked separate charges to create an impression of a plot - to save face after ignoring Salem’s warnings before the attack on the trade center.
The defense contended that Abdel Rahman had only been exercising his free-speech rights to urge the overthrow of an oppressive regime in his native Egypt.