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Witness links two embassy bombing defendants

Wadih el Hage and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh
A prosecution witness says defendants el Hage, left, and Odeh knew each other prior to the 1998 embassy bombings. They face life in prison, if convicted.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A former associate of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden Thursday linked two men on trial for an alleged terrorist conspiracy culminating in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.

The witness, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, said alleged Kenya embassy bomber Mohamed Sadeek Odeh and alleged Nairobi cell leader Wadih el Hage were acquainted in Kenya in the mid 1990's, when Odeh primarily worked on a fishing boat in the coastal city of Mombasa and el Hage lived in Nairobi.

The testimony was the first time a witness established a personal connection between any of the four defendants on trial.

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Shattered Diplomacy: The U.S. Embassy Bombings Trial
An in-depth special report on the trial of four men charged with the embassy bombings
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Testimony of witnesses Al-Ridi and Juma (PDF)

CNN March 1997 interview with Osama bin Laden (PDF)

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Kherchtou, a 36-year-old Moroccan, is an admitted former member of al Qaeda, the Islamic militant organization led by bin Laden, a Saudi expatriate believed to be living in Afghanistan.

Federal prosecutors have indicted bin Laden and 21 of his followers for an alleged decade-long conspiracy aimed at killing Americans and destroying U.S. property abroad. The government claims bin Laden masterminded the embassy attacks that killed 224 people and injured thousands more in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on August 7, 1998.

Kherchtou said three years prior to the bombings he saw al Qaeda's military chief, Muhammed Atef, in el Hage's Nairobi residence a couple of times. The witness said el Hage had once sold diamonds on behalf of Atef's predecessor, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, and that after al-Banshiri drowned in a ferry accident, he saw el Hage cry about the death.

Atef and bin Laden, who top the list of 13 fugitives in the case, are believed to be living in Afghanistan.

In Kenya, el Hage worked for a non-governmental relief agency called Help Africa People, but prosecutors allege he used the agency to create false identification papers for al Qaeda members. Kherchtou said he knew el Hage made identification cards with his Apple laptop computer, which was seized in 1997 FBI raid, and introduced as evidence on Wednesday.

Without providing specifics on his own activities, Kherchtou testified that he had joined al Qaeda in 1991, trained at its military camps to become a pilot, worked for its companies in Sudan and left the group at the end of 1995, when bin Laden relocated his base to Afghanistan.

Kherchtou testified that four years before the embassy blasts, al Qaeda operatives conducted surveillance of possible terrorist targets in the Kenyan capital. He described how Anas Al-Liby, a fugitive in the case, and Ali Mohamed, who has pled guilty, converted a room of his Nairobi apartment into a dark room to develop photos.

The testimony corroborated Ali Mohamed's guilty plea from last October, when he told the court, "I took pictures, wrote diagrams, and wrote a report" of Western government buildings. "Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber," Mohamed said at the time.

Kherchtou also said al Qaeda members, including Odeh, traveled to and from Somalia because the group opposed a United Nations mission there that included American troops. He said a plan to car bomb a U.N. building was never carried out. The indictment accuses bin Laden and his conspirators of training Somali fighters who killed 18 U.S. Army rangers in an October 1993 ambush.

Kherchtou, who was in Nairobi the day of the embassy bombing , testified that he was interviewing for a pilot's job with a tourism agency. Four days later, he was arrested at the airport preparing to leave the country. After interrogations by U.S. intelligence officers, Kherchtou agreed to provide information on al Qaeda. He is the second defector from the group to testify.

Since last September, Kherchtou has been living in the United States in FBI custody, as part of a plea agreement. He will undergo cross-examination when court resumes on Monday, February 26 at 10 a.m. ET.

El-Hage, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, and Odeh, 35, a Jordanian, face the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted of conspiracy behind the bombings. The other two defendants on trial, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, a Tanzanian, and Mohamed Al-'Owhali, 24, a Saudi, face the death penalty if convicted of direct roles in the attacks.

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Links to United States Embassies and Consulates Worldwide
Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999
FBI Websites Document Evidence Against Bin Laden
Dept of State/International Information Programs:
Ussamah Bin Laden
US District Court, Southern District of New York
U.S. State Department - Counterterrorism
Terrorism Research Center
Africa News on the World Wide Web

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