Interrogator Testifies About Hamdan's Work With Bin Laden

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, July 23 -- Osama bin Laden's driver witnessed the al-Qaeda leader being briefed on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and overheard him express satisfaction that the death toll had exceeded expectations, an FBI interrogator testified Wednesday.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, now held at the U.S. military prison here, had said under questioning six years ago that bin Laden was "happy about the results" of the terrorist strikes because he had expected "only" 1,000 to 1,500 people to die, former FBI agent Ali Soufan told jurors at Hamdan's military trial.

During the 2002 interrogation, Hamdan "said he had heard bin Laden saying he didn't expect the operation . . . would be that successful," Soufan said. Nearly 3,000 people perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Hamdan, who is charged with participating in a terrorist conspiracy, is the defendant in the first U.S. military commission held since World War II.

According to Soufan, Hamdan said that on Sept. 11, 2001, he was present for a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, between the al-Qaeda leader; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As the men viewed pictures of the 19 suicide hijackers, bin Laden "praised them and their courage and asked God to accept them as martyrs," Soufan quoted Hamdan as saying.

The testimony was intended to support the prosecution's depiction of Hamdan as a trusted al-Qaeda member who ferried weapons for the organization. Defense lawyers portray him as a salaried employee who did not support terrorist acts.

Soufan said on cross-examination that the information Hamdan heard about terrorist attacks usually came after they occurred, not before. "He never told me he had previous knowledge except . . . when bin Laden tells him that there is an operation coming," Soufan said.

Hamdan, who had sat quietly in the courtroom despite a previous threat to boycott the trial, was briefly ejected Wednesday afternoon after he stood up and tried to leave. He later returned and apologized to the judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred.

A prosecution video was playing when Hamdan arose. It showed him during an interrogation conducted after he was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001. The video, during which Hamdan denied involvement with al-Qaeda, showed him sitting cross-legged on a floor, his hands manacled and an armed guard nearby. At the end of one frame, a bag is placed over his head.

Soufan, who left the FBI in 2005, described a close relationship between Hamdan and the terrorist leader he chauffeured. Hamdan first met bin Laden around 1996 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, after he was recruited by a close bin Laden associate, Soufan testified.

Hamdan rose through the ranks, becoming a trusted weapons courier and bodyguard, said Soufan, who also narrated for jurors a video from a 1998 al-Qaeda news conference held for Pakistani journalists. The video showed Hamdan holding a machine gun in one frame and smiling at bin Laden in another.

Bin Laden even told Hamdan, a Yemeni father of two, whom to marry, Soufan said. "Mr. bin Laden told Mr. Hamdan that he needed to go to Yemen and find a woman from a pious religious family, and he actually requested that him and [another al-Qaeda member] should marry two sisters," Soufan testified.

Bin Laden then hosted a feast to celebrate Hamdan's wedding to one of the sisters, Soufan said.

Hamdan's trial culminates a long-delayed effort by the Bush administration to begin bringing accused terrorists before military courts. President Bush first proposed the military commissions in a post-Sept. 11 directive that declared an "extraordinary emergency."

In many ways, it is unfolding like any high-security proceeding in civilian court. Jurors are anonymous, as they are for some terrorism trials. Defense lawyers are fiercely advocating for Hamdan; prosecutors are pressing their case against him.

But there is no doubt that this is a military proceeding. The courtroom is in a light-brown former aircraft operations center that overlooks an old runway. Uniformed guards are just behind Hamdan, and the six jurors -- all military officers -- sit beneath the insignias of the branches of the armed forces.

Allred has implored the jury to be fair and has thrown out some key prosecution evidence. But he has also ruled that some basic constitutional rights do not apply to Hamdan in this proceeding.

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