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Witness backtracks at embassy bombings trial

Under cross-examination Tuesday, Kherchtou testified he was unsure if defendant Wadih el Hage belonged to bin Laden's alleged terrorist group.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A government witness testified that Wadih el Hage, a defendant in a federal trial alleging conspiracy in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa, was part of al Qaeda, the alleged terrorist organization led by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden. Then on cross-examination, the witness contradicted himself, saying he was not sure of el Hage's affiliation.

It is unclear how the jury treat the inconsistency by the witness, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, or whether it will affect his credibility on other points over four days of testimony.

El Hage is one of four men being tried in federal court on charges of a conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property that culminated in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks federal prosecutors charge were executed by al Qaeda.

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

CNN March 1997 interview with Osama bin Laden (PDF)

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Until Tuesday, no witness, including two defectors from bin Laden's group, had said el Hage actually belonged to al Qaeda. He has been described only as working for bin Laden's legitimate companies based in Sudan and relief agencies in Kenya.

Kherchtou testified Monday under cross-examination that he was not aware that el Hage ever took a loyalty oath, or bayat, to bin Laden as was customary for al Qaeda members.

Under redirect examination by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on Tuesday, Kherchtou said it was generally known who belonged to al Qaeda and who didn't, even if one did not witness other members taking the oath. Kherchtou said that when he swore bayat in 1991, fewer than five people were in the room.

When Fitzgerald asked him if el Hage was among those he knew were in al Qaeda, even though he didn't see them make bayat, Kherchtou said, "He is from al Qaeda."

Under further cross-examination by el Hage attorney Sam Schmidt, Kherchtou backtracked, saying he did not know whether el Hage actually belonged.

Schmidt asked Kherchtou what he told his first interrogator about el Hage 2.5 years ago in Kenya.

"I told him I didn't know exactly if he was from al Qaeda," Kherchtou testified. "I was in jail. I did not tell him the entire truth. My aim was to have him get me out of my jail cell," he said.

Schmidt then asked Kherchtou about his statements to an FBI agent just six months ago.

"I told him I was not aware whether he [el Hage] was in al Qaeda or not," Kherchtou said.

"Was that the truth?" Schmidt asked.

"Yes," Kherchtou replied.

Kherchtou previously described el Hage as someone bin Laden knew well and considered trustworthy. That was because, he testified, the men knew each other since the early-1980s from their involvement with Islamic freedom fighters against Soviet invaders of Afghanistan.

El Hage's defense attorneys concede their client subsequently worked for bin Laden's commercial interests but say he did not participate in any violent activity.

Kherchtou, 36, a Moroccan who testified he broke with bin Laden in 1996, has linked el Hage and trial co-defendant Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, saying the alleged conspirators knew each other when they both lived in Kenya in the mid-1990s.

Kherchtou is testifying after a plea agreement with the U.S. government. He lives under constant FBI watch with his wife and three daughters. He has not spent a day in a U.S. jail and has yet to be sentenced for conspiracy to kill Americans.

Kherchtou told the court that many al Qaeda members did not agree with bin Laden's second fatwah, or religious decree, against the United States. Prosecutor Ken Karas read the document into the court record Tuesday morning.

Published in an Arabic newspaper on February 23, 1998, the fatwah stated it was an individual duty of Muslims to kill Americans, including civilians, for the continued U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, and the United States' punitive treatment of Iraq and support of Israel.

"Many people were against this fatwah?" asked David Ruhnke, attorney for trial defendant Khalfan Mohamed.

"Correct," Kherchtou replied, adding that many in al Qaeda accepted the order "if they are convinced and if their faith will allow them."

New prosecution witnesses will be called to testify Tuesday afternoon.

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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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