Bombing Trial Witness Describes Nairobi Surveillance Mission

by Judy Aita
The US State Department
February 22, 2001

New York -- The U.S. government this week introduced another former member of the alleged al Qaeda terrorist organization, who identified two of the defendants believed responsible for the bombings of American Embassies in East Africa.

According to L'Houssaine Kherchtou, whose testimony February 20-22 dominated the third week of the trial in U.S. Federal District Court, the two conducted surveillance on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi some three years before the 1998 attack that claimed the lives of 224 persons, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

On trial in New York are Wadih El Hage, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon; Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, a Jordanian; Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owali, a Saudi Arabian; and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a Tanzanian. They are charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals; to murder, kidnap, and maim U.S. nationals; and to destroy U.S. national defense buildings in the bombings; Odeh and Mohamed also are charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and face the death penalty if convicted. The defendants are part of a group of 22 charged in the bombings. Thirteen remain at large, including al Qaeda founder and leader bin Laden, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Kherchtou, a Moroccan who once studied to be a chef in France, said under questioning that he had joined the al Qaeda organization in 1991 after being indoctrinated in al Qaeda "guest houses" and camps organized by bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was during that training that Kherchtou first met a man named "Marwan," whom he identified as one of the defendants sitting in the courtroom, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh.

During his training in surveillance techniques in Pakistan in 1992, Kherchtou also met a man known as Abu Mohamed al Ameriki or Haydara -- now identified as Ali Mohamed, who has been named as a co-conspirator but is not a defendant in this trial.

Mohamed taught trainees "how to make surveillance of target and how to collect information about these targets," Kherchtou said.

Ali Mohamed, a naturalized American born in Egypt and a former U.S. Army sergeant, pleaded guilty last October to conducting visual and photographic surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. In entering a guilty plea, he told the judge that bin Laden had asked him to scout out the American Embassy, and when shown a photograph of the building pointed out where a suicide truck could go.

Kherchtou said that he also learned camera surveillance techniques, how to develop film and print pictures, and how to put the information on computers.

Kherchtou lived in Nairobi between 1992 and 1995, he said, where he attended flight school with the expectation of becoming an airplane pilot for bin Laden. His living and educational expenses were paid by al Qaeda. During that time, he said, he aided other al Qaeda members in Nairobi who were going to and coming from Somalia, where the organization was helping Somali factions fight against United Nations peacekeepers, especially the U.S. contingent.

During those visits he was told the organization wanted "to put some explosives in a car" and to put it inside a U.N. compound, but they were unable to do so, Kherchtou said.

Kherchtou said that he again saw his surveillance instructor when Mohamed and two other men, Anas al Liby and Hamza al Liby, used his apartment in late 1994 or early 1995 for some surveillance work. The three took his sitting room, "closed it with blankets, closed the windows, and they were using it to develop pictures and all their stuff of surveillance," he said. Kherchtou said that he never saw any of the pictures the team developed, but he recalled that one day after flight school he met Anas al Liby with a camera "about 500 meters" from the U.S. Embassy.

Kherchtou also identified Wadih El Hage as his "boss" in Nairobi in 1994-95. He said they shared a room at a local hotel and later he lived in an apartment behind El Hage's house, outside Nairobi.

According to Kherchtou, he began to resent al Qaeda when the organization refused to pay $500 for his wife's medical expenses. Kherchtou said he complained that he was being "treated as second class" because there was enough money to send a group of Egyptians to Yemen all expenses paid for a month to renew their passports.

When the organization was being forced to leave Sudan for Afghanistan in 1995, Kherchtou said, he refused to go -- thus violating his oath to al Qaeda, or bayat. From then on, he said, he no longer considered himself a member of the organization.

Kherchtou said he eventually left Kenya to live in Sudan, but added that he returned to Nairobi to discuss a job offer with an unidentified businessman in August 1998, when the embassy was bombed. He met al Qaeda member Abu Tawhil and the two agreed not to meet again, he said, because "in this situation I am afraid. I don't need problems here."

Detained at the airport, he was taken by Kenyan security to a police station, where he was questioned by an intelligence agent from an unnamed country for five days, he said. "He knows me well, my wife, my kids, and my life," Kherchtou recalled, "so I started talking to him."

But he did not tell "everything," he said. For example, he said he did not tell the agent about the surveillance photos developed in his apartment. After agreeing "to work against al Qaeda," Kherchtou said, he was released and returned to Sudan. He said he never contacted the agent again.

Kherchtou said he and his family then moved to Morocco, where he agreed to meet with an American representative. Once again, he said, he did not tell everything at first, choosing to omit details about the surveillance photos.

Kherchtou eventually agreed to testify at the trial in New York, arriving in the United States in September 2000. He and his family are in FBI custody. While he did not specify to what charges, he said that he pleaded guilty and could face up to life in prison.

The jury also heard a 56-minute CNN interview with bin Laden, conducted in eastern Afghanistan in March 1997, a portion of which was shown on CNN.

In the interview, bin Laden said that if the U.S. military remains in Saudi Arabia, "explosions and killings of the Americans would continue."

Asked about the bombing of the World Trade Center, bin Laden said that he did not know the convicted bomber, Ramzi Yousef, but added, "If the American government is serious about avoiding the explosions in the U.S., then let it stop provoking the feelings of 1,250 million Muslims."

In an intense cross-examination of another witness earlier in the week, El Hage defense lawyer Sam Schmidt attempted to discredit Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, the government's main witness to date. Al-Fadl, one of the earliest members of al Qaeda, has identified El Hage as a member of the alleged terrorist organization and a close aide to bin Laden.

Schmidt attempted to portray al-Fadl as someone so desperate for help because he had stolen money from al Qaeda that he would tell the Americans or any other government anything in order to win their help.

Under questioning from Schmidt, al-Fadl said that before going to the U.S. Embassy and offering information on al Qaeda in 1996, he traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia -- and even considered going to Israel in an attempt to raise money to oppose Sudan's ruling party, the National Islamic Front.

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