Trial witness tells of world of bin Laden

Monday, October 1, 2001

NEW YORK -- Recruited off the streets of New York in 1986, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl became a foot soldier for Osama bin Laden -- fighting in Afghanistan, training in Sudan and learning the inner workings of a terrorist network whose members signed on to a holy war against America.

Fifteen years later, al-Fadl was out of favor with bin Laden and back in New York -- this time as the government's star witness in the trial of the U.S. embassy bombings, which bin Laden is believed to have masterminded.

His testimony was a coup for government prosecutors who, in July, successfully put four men behind bars for life for the deadly 1998 twin bombings in East Africa that killed 219 people, including 12 Americans.

But for intelligence experts, the information al-Fadl revealed in the trial provided a first important window into bin Laden's al-Qaida network that they continue to study today for clues that may shed light on the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"The testimony was absolutely critical," said Michael Swetnam, a counterterrorism specialist at the Washington-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "This brought to light a tremendous amount of information on bin Laden that will be useful for a long time."

In open court, al-Fadl detailed al-Qaida's pyramid structure of committees, it's business holdings, how it moved money and arms around the world and the pledges members took to oust Soviet troops in Afghanistan and later, U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Just as crucial for intelligence experts were the dozens of people al-Fadl identified in bin Laden's inner circle -- several of whom appeared on a list of people whose assets were frozen last week by President Bush because of their ties to bin Laden.

In 1986, the Sudanene-born al-Fadl was a 23-year-old foreign student in the United States on a visa to study English in Atlanta. But after a few months, he wound up bagging groceries in Brooklyn, where he could make money and be near a Muslim community.

There, like many young Muslim men, he was recruited through a local mosque to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. In camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border, he learned to use grenade launchers, build bombs, fight and pray with Islamic fundamentalists. It is also where he first met bin Laden.

"He talked about the Soviet Union army coming to Afghanistan and killing people and we have to help them (Afghanistan), we have to make jihad," al-Fadl recalled in federal court on Feb. 6 this year.

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