- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

One man accused of smuggling weapons and moving money for al Qaeda and another accused of serving as a propagandist for the terrorist network will be tried in the first U.S. military tribunals since World War II.

Sulayman al-Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi of Sudan, who both also are accused of serving as bodyguards for al Qaeda ringleader Osama bin Laden, are “charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes,” U.S. military officials said yesterday.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. John Smith said military prosecutors did not plan to seek the death penalty against either man, but said they could face sentences of up to life in prison.

The two men are among the six persons whom President Bush named in July as eligible for trials before the tribunals, formally called military commissions.

One defense official cautioned that the men still are presumed innocent.

“It’s equally possible that they could be exonerated,” the official said of Mr. al-Bahlul and Mr. al-Qosi, who are the first individuals to be charged among the more than 600 foreign nationals held at the U.S. prison for terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

The military tribunals for the suspects, whom the Bush administration refers to as “enemy combatants,” has emerged as one of the more contentious issues in the war on terror.

The defense official said the tribunals will involve a panel of seven uniformed military officials at Guantanamo.

According to indictments unsealed at the Pentagon yesterday, Mr. al-Bahlul and Mr. al-Qosi completed training at al Qaeda sponsored camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, with Mr. al-Qosi being named “an accountant” for the network in several Middle Eastern countries as early as 1991.

The Pentagon said in its announcement yesterday that trial dates and panel members will be selected later.

The Pentagon said Mr. al-Bahlul went through terrorist training in late 1999 and was “personally assigned by bin Laden to work in the al Qaeda media office,” creating several instructional and motivational recruiting videos to inspire violent attacks against the militaries and civilians of the United States and other countries.

His indictment maintains that he worked closely with bin Laden from late 1999 through December 2001, first working out of an al Qaeda-sponsored guesthouse in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and, after September 11, 2001, serving as a bin Laden bodyguard.

Often traveling in a caravan of vehicles with the terrorist leader, “al-Bahlul was armed and wore an explosives-laden belt,” according to the indictment, which also says at one point, bin Laden personally told Mr. al-Bahlul to create a video glorifying the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemen harbor.

Mr. al-Qosi’s indictment is longer because the Pentagon thinks his involvement with al Qaeda spans from 1989, when he is suspected of becoming a member in Sudan during the network’s formative stages, through his capture in Afghanistan in 2001.

Military officials previously have said suspects held at Guantanamo Bay were arrested during U.S. military operations in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. The fact that Mr. al-Bahlul and Mr. al-Qosi are suspected of having worked closely with bin Laden might raise questions about how they were arrested while bin Laden remains at large.

A Pentagon official last night said the two concepts were unrelated, although the official declined to discuss the circumstances under which Mr. al-Bahlul and Mr. al-Qosi were arrested.

The al-Qosi indictment maintains that he facilitated movement of explosives and ammunition and worked as an accountant in an al Qaeda front company in Sudan during the early 1990s, and that after an assassination attempt on bin Laden in 1994, he was handpicked by the terrorist leader to serve as a bodyguard.

After traveling in 1995 on a bin Laden-financed trip to fight alongside other Islamic militants in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya, Mr. al-Qosi again served in bin Laden’s inner circle, the indictment claims.

It also charges that on some occasions from about 1996 until his capture, Mr. al-Qosi served as a personal driver for bin Laden and was responsible for gathering supplies and cooking for bin Laden’s entourage.

The Pentagon yesterday said the men will have “an opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses” during their tribunals, adding that such military trials have been used “historically” to try those who violate the law of armed conflict.

In an unprecedented candid defense of the administration’s use of the classification, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales yesterday said it is made only after a “thoughtful, deliberative and thorough analysis of the relevant facts and law.”

“For those worried that the president can designate anyone in this room an enemy combatant, I can assure you there is a process in place,” Mr. Gonzales told members of the American Bar Association.

If action within the criminal-justice system is seen as “less-than-ideal,” he said, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice has to advise whether “the individual meets the legal standard for enemy-combatant status” laid down by the Supreme Court in the 1942 Quirin case.

In that case, U.S. authorities in New York apprehended eight members of a Nazi sabotage team bent on destruction of economic targets in the United States.

Mr. Gonzales added that “on more than one occasion,” the administration had considered enemy-combatant status for an individual, but determined that it was not warranted by the facts or “so close to the line as to present a very doubtful case.”

In these cases, he said, “different, legally available strategies for addressing the threat” had been employed.

However, Timothy Edgar, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said this statement revealed how the administration views the use of enemy-combatant status as “a convenient way to avoid the checks and balances of the criminal justice system.

“The whole process only gets under way after they have decided they cannot take the risk of prosecuting someone,” Mr. Edgar said.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also released statements yesterday criticizing the tribunals’ due-process standards.

• Shaun Waterman of United Press International contributed to this report.

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