Embarrassed by its failure to heed warnings of a plot to bomb the World Trade Center, the FBI orchestrated a vast terrorism case against 12 Muslims to salvage its reputation, a defense attorney asserted today in the biggest terrorism trial in U.S. history.
Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind, 56-year-old Egyptian cleric, is accused along with 11 alleged disciples of plotting to blow up New York City bridges and tunnels, the United Nations and an FBI office in what prosecutors called a "holy war" against the U.S. government.
"You see and will learn that the FBI knew someone was going to bomb the World Trade Center," attorney John Jacobs said in the second day of opening statements in the trial. "The FBI ignored the warning."
In 1993, "their arrogance and audacity blew up in their face," Jacobs said. The bombing killed six people, injured 1,000 and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage.
Jacobs said the FBI used an informant, Emad Salem, to entrap the defendants in an "orchestrated attempt . . . to reestablish its reputation as a law enforcement agency."
Jacobs, who represents Mohammed Saleh, and other defense attorneys tried to soften the images of their clients. They explained to the jury why some of the men wore Arab-style clothing, including robes, and discussed the defendants' devotion to Islam. Several of the men nodded their heads as their lawyers spoke.
The lawyers spent the rest of the time pounding away at the government's handling of the conspiracy case and its star witness, Salem.
It was Salem who told the FBI about the impending trade center attack, Jacobs said. According to a transcript of one conversation between Salem and his FBI handlers, Salem claims he had tipped the agency about the bombing.
Jacobs said that James Fox, an assistant director of the FBI and head of the agency's New York office, was suspended shortly before retirement by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh because Fox said publicly that Salem never warned the FBI.
"You will learn that Fox's statements were a lie," Jacobs said. "Emad had told them things were going to happen." The defense attorney suggested instead that Freeh suspended Fox "because the FBI was engaging in a coverup."