Algerian faces trial on terrorist conspiracy charges

The Associated Press
Tuesday March 13, 2001

LOS ANGELES — An Algerian national accused of conspiring to bomb Seattle and other cities during millennium celebrations went on trial in federal court Monday and most prospective jurors said they already knew about the case from media reports. 

Ahmed Ressam, 33, sat with a slight smile on his face as he listened to the jury prospects’ responses through earphones in which the proceedings were translated. 

Only one prospect in the first group brought in for questioning asked to be excused because of fears involving terrorism. The man said he was a federal worker handling parcels and became frightened at the time of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. He said he would prefer not to serve on the case and was excused. 

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said he would screen an initial 36 prospects before attorneys could begin using peremptory challenges to remove some of them. 

The prospects had already filled out lengthy questionnaires, seen only by the lawyers and the judge, which gave indications of how they felt about the case and provided details of their own backgrounds. 

Those questioned in the initial group included several with law enforcement backgrounds or with law officers in their families. A probation officer passed the first round of questioning, as did a woman who works as a medical transcriber at a prison hospital. 

Defense attorneys asked prospects if they spoke foreign languages or if they would be prejudiced because the defendant does not speak English and is a foreigner. All said they had no problem with Ressam’s origins. 

One woman was excused from the panel after she declared that she was a deeply religious daughter of a policeman and believed that “right is right and wrong is wrong” and there is no gray area. She said she also believed she was biased in favor of law enforcement witnesses. 

The trial began under heavy security, with metal detectors at both the entry to the building and again outside the courtroom. Federal officers patrolled outside and dogs sniffed packages and briefcases being brought into the building. 

Ressam, said to be a graduate of Osama bin Laden’s training camp for terrorists, is accused of entering the state of Washington aboard a ferry from Canada with a car loaded with bomb making materials. His intention, authorities say, was to set off explosions that would kill hundreds at U.S. millennium celebrations. 

The arrest was a factor that motivated Seattle officials to cancel celebrations at the Space Needle. 

Federal prosecutors say the arrest exposed an international terrorist plot that has resulted in three other arrests in Washington, Montreal and New York. 

Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council adviser in charge of counterterrorism at the time, has said that bin Laden planned to hit U.S. targets worldwide in the first days of 2000 causing hundreds of casualties. 

“What if January last year had started with 1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world?” Clarke has said. “We came very close to having that happen.” 

He said that attacks were thwarted by arrests including the apprehension of Ressam by customs authorities at Port Angeles, Wash. on Dec. 14, 1999. Authorities believe that Ressam planned several West Coast attacks at the New Year. 

Bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan, is a Saudi millionaire and the alleged mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Authorities have linked bin Laden to the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives-packed boat next to the warship as it refueled in Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 39. 

Terrorism experts say Ressam and several others implicated with him in the millennium plot trained in Afghanistan camps where bin Laden’s Al Qaida group develops terrorists. 

Ressam’s federal trial was transferred to Los Angeles because of widespread publicity in Washington state. 

He is currently on trial in absentia in France where prosecutors allege he was part of a group that bombed a Paris subway in 1996 and more recently was the Montreal link in a network that supplied false passports and documents to Islamic militants worldwide.