The biggest terror trial in American history drew to a close this week with the conviction of 10 Islamic defendants under a rarely used Civil War-era seditious conspiracy charge.
After a week of deliberations, a federal jury in New York on Sunday found blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine other defendants guilty of conspiracy for their scheme to blow up the United Nations and other prominent New York sites as part of their planned jihad, or holy war, against the United States.
They were also found guilty of plotting the assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and of seeking to attack a U.S. military installation.
One of the defendants, El Sayid Nosair, was convicted of murdering militantly anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.
Nosair was acquitted of the murder in a 1991 New York state trial, but was found guilty at the time on separate weapons-possession charges.
Federal prosecutors this week won a conviction against Nosair for the Kahane murder under a separate federal conspiracy statute – a legal maneuver with many precedents that sidestepped the issue of double jeopardy, or being tried twice for the same crime, experts said.
As a result of the convictions, Abdel-Rahman, and Nosair face life in prison; the remaining defendants may be sentenced up to 20 to 30 years in prison.
Sentencing is expected to take place in January or February.
New York activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, who was notified by the FBI in January that he was among a number of figures appearing on a hit list issued by the sheik, said he was “gratified that this ruling came down.”
But at the same time, Weiss said he was “incensed” that the FBI waited seven months before telling him that he was on the hit list, which also included New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew, and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.)
In a telephone interview, Weiss said he was suing the FBI in federal court over the delay.
He said his suit was “crucial for the safety of our community,” adding that it was incumbent on the FBI “to let us know when one of our members has been threatened.”
Weiss also said he was calling for an investigation of the FBI to find out whether the government had nay advance information about death threats against Kahane before he was killed and to find out whether the FBI pursued the then- theory that Nosair was carrying out part of a broader conspiracy when he shot Kahane at a N.Y. hotel.
“I believe the FBI knew in November 1991 that Nosair did not act alone” in the slaying of Kahane, said Weiss.
He contends that had the FBI acted on the conspiracy theory at the time, they would uncovered the entire terrorist cell and would have been able to prevent the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured 1,000.
Within hours of Sunday’s verdict, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena ordered heightened security at airports nationwide.
The order was not officially linked to the verdict, but a government official said it was among a number of factors – including Pope John Paul’s visit to New York this week and 50th anniversary celebrations at the United Nations – that led government officials to be concerned about a possible terror attack.
The 10 defendants were indicted Aug. 25, 1993, on broad racketeering and conspiracy charges that stemmed from the World Trade Center bombing.
The defendants were not accused of that bombing, for which four people were convicted last year and two more were scheduled to be tried next year.
Prosecutors, relying heavily on a highly paid informant and secretly made tapes, instead said the 10 were planning a “day of terror” aimed at undermining American support of Egypt.
With Abdel-Rahman serving as the group’s spiritual leader, prosecutors said, the conspirators planned to blow up the United Nations, New York’s Holland and Lincoln tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and the city’s downtown federal office building.
Abdel-Rahman was acquitted in Egypt on charges of involvement in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, and of involvement in two cases of anti- government rioting.
The blind cleric was retired in Egypt in 1994 on the rioting charges and was sentenced in absentia to seven year’s imprisonment.
Egyptian sources expressed relief that Abdel-Rahman, spiritual leader of Egypt’s banned Islamic Group, was convicted in New York and would now not face extradition to Egypt for what would be a potentially dangerous trial there.
Along with Abdel-Rahman and Nosair, the men convicted Sunday were: brothers Amir and Fadil Abdelghani, Victor Alvarez, Ibrahim Elgabrowny, Tarig Elhassan, Clement Hampton-El, Fares Khallafalla and Mohammed Saleh.
Defense attorney Lynne Stewart said after the conclusion of the nine-month trial that “Islam was on trial.”
But U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said the case was “not about religious beliefs or ethnicities of people.”
“Indeed, these crimes are perhaps most offensive to the vast, vast majority of Muslims who speak and live the enlightenment and peacefulness of their religion,’ White added.
After the guilty verdicts were read and the jurors had left the courtroom, one of the defendants reportedly called out in Arabic “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is Great.”
Defense attorneys said they would appeal the verdicts.