Bin Laden propagandist convicted

 

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A military jury Monday convicted Osama bin Laden's media secretary of war crimes for creating an al Qaeda recruiting video that prosecutors argued incited suicide bombers.

Ali Hamza al Bahlul, about 40, of Yemen, did not react as the guilty verdict was announced. The Army prosecutor asked the jurors to return the maximum, life in prison. The jury was to deliberate Bahlul's sentence Monday afternoon.

He became only the second detainee among the 255 here ever convicted of war crimes before the special terror court President Bush ordered set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He will now join bin Laden's driver in a convict's corridor at the prison camps.

Unbowed by the verdict, a defiant Bahlul broke a self-imposed boycott on the proceedings just before lunch.

He launched into a 50-minute monologue that hailed bin Laden, berated the United States for the plight of the Palestinians and cast his conflict with the United States as part of a decades-long battle between the West and Islam.

''We have fought and we fight and will fight any government that governs America,'' he said, at one point waving a boat and an airplane, which he had fashioned from paper. ``You do not deserve to be the masters of the world, the leadership of the world. Today we are the only ones on Earth who stand against you.''

He then waved a poem he said he wrote -- called The Storm of the Airplanes -- dedicated it to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and vowed, ``The war continues. It will never stop until you become fair and go back to your country and pull your ships from the peninsula of Islam.''

There was no evidence across last week's four-day, no-contest trial that Bahlul, a father of four from Yemen's Red Sea region, ever fired a shot at Americans during his 1999-2001 tenure in Afghanistan.

But the Pentagon argued that Bahlul committed three war crimes by creating a two-hour video that spliced fiery bin Laden speeches with Muslim bloodshed and stock news footage of the aftermath of the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole.

The jury of nine senior U.S. military officers agreed.

They deliberated fewer than four hours Friday on the three separate charges -- conspiracy, providing material support for terror and solicitation to murder. The verdict was unsealed Monday morning.

In convicting Bahlul, the jury deleted a portion of the charge sheet that said the Yemeni armed himself with ''an explosive belt'' to protect bin Laden.

No one testified about that at the four-day trial, which called 14 witnesses -- including U.S. agents who interrogated Bahlul here, three former American jihadists who saw his video and FBI forensic experts.

At most, Bahlul can get life in prison.

Later, the Cole's commander, retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, and the father of one of the slain sailors testified about the pain the video has caused.

''Our son and his 16 mates were minding their own business, refueling in a supposedly friendly harbor and weren't out to hurt anybody and were viciously attacked and murdered,'' said Gary Swenchonis Sr., his hands shaking and voice trembling after using a cane to take the war court's witness stand.

Two al Qaeda suicide bombers in a vessel packed with explosives came up alongside the warship while it was refueling in Aden harbor, waved, then detonated their load.

Swenchonis' son Gary Jr. of Rockport, Texas, was a 26-year-old petty officer and firefighter when he was killed in the attack.

Prompted by the prosecutor, the father said the video was especially troubling because it promoted ''propaganda, hate, violence'' -- values his family abhored.

''He was raised, in short, to respect all people of religious beliefs and that violence was wrong,'' Swenchonis said. ``If you had to go to war you went to war for your nation -- and you wore a uniform and that's what a uniform was all about.''

The Yemeni watched from the defendant's table expressionless. Like throughout the trial, he sat silently in tan prison camp jumpsuit and slip-on sneakers.

Lippold, now a civilian, testified in charcoal suit and red tie. He said he first learned of Bahlul's handiwork in 2003 when a TV news correspondent showed it to him while both men were working at the Pentagon.

''I was disgusted with it. . . . It was like tearing open a wound,'' said Lippold, who described his first reaction to seeing Bahlul's handiwork -- a cartoon-like cloud superimposed over a 40-by-40-foot hole in the side of his warship.

''I knew that video was going to have a big impact,'' he said.

Its message, as he saw it: ``That al Qaeda was capable of planning and executing this kind of amoral and cowardly attack. It was going be a very powerful tool.''

Bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, also of Yemen, was convicted of supporting terror in August. A different jury sentenced him to time served plus the rest of 2008 in prison.

In contrast to Hamdan's clear contrition, Bahlul has been defiant through the trial. He refused to mount a defense or let his Pentagon lawyer question trial witnesses.

Earlier, out of earshot of the jury, Bahlul said he rejected the authority of the U.S. military to judge him, and revered only bin Laden and Islamic shariya law.

Bahlul spent portions of his trial scribbling on pages, apparently drafts of an address he may deliver before sentencing later Monday.

The jury included three Army colonels, three Navy captains, two Air Force colonels and a Marine colonel with pilot's wings on his uniform.

The war court's former chief prosecutor, retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a persistent critic of secrecy surrounding the process, noted that the United States had managed to complete only three men's cases before commissions: Hicks, who pleaded in exchange for his freedom; Hamdan, and Bahlul, whom he described as ''a dupe, a driver and default,'' because he refused to defend himself.

Then Davis declared the war court all but dead.

''I suspect that's the last of the military commissions,'' said Davis. ``With the Bush administration in its final 80 days, I'm hopeful the next administration will put an end to this regrettable chapter in our nation's history and begin the process of restoring the nation's reputation.''

Davis' successor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said he would not bring any more cases to trial before the end of the year.

But he declared himself ''pleased with the verdict'' in the Bahlul case, and pleased with the findings, by the jurors who found the Yemeni guilty on all charges.

Morris said he planned to go forward with the Jan. 5 trial of Mohammed Jawad, a young Afghan accused of tossing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers and their translator in an Afghan bazaar.

In a pre-trial hearing, Jawad's judge ruled his confession, obtained in a Kabul police station soon after his December 2002 arrest, was derived by torture at the hands of Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

His attorney, the same man assigned to the Bahlul case, Air Forces Reserve Maj. David Frakt, has declared the case unprosecutable -- echoing a recent ruling from the trial judge.

Read more In the Courts stories from the Miami Herald

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