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FBI: Bin Laden driver knew of al-Qaeda activities

Latest update : 2008-07-24

FBI terror expert Ali Soufan told the Guantanamo Bay US military court that Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard, was aware of his boss's terror plans. FRANCE 24's E. Saint-Martin reports from the US base in Cuba.

Osama bin Laden's driver was part of a small circle of loyal staff and was aware his boss was involved in terrorist attacks, an FBI agent told a US military tribunal here on Wednesday.

In the terrorism trial of Salim Hamdan, the Federal Bureau of Investigation witness described details of the driver's relationship with the Al-Qaeda mastermind based on his interrogations of Salim Hamdan in 2002 and 2003.

In their first meeting, Hamdan told bin Laden he came from the same region in Yemen as bin Laden's father, helping to win the trust of the Al-Qaeda leader, said Ali Soufan, an FBI expert on the terror network.

Hamdan was part of small circle of loyal employees under bin Laden who admired the Saudi extremist and who enjoyed his absolute confidence, Soufan said.

In 1999, Hamdan married the sister of another employee on the advice of bin Laden, Soufan told the tribunal.

"He was chosen by bin Laden" to serve as his driver, and was sometimes the main chauffeur and other times not, he said.

Hamdan, who is about 40 years old, is the first "enemy combatant" in Guantanamo to face a full-scale trial before the controversial tribunals created by President George W. Bush to try terror suspects.

He faces charges of "conspiracy" and "material support for terrorism," and could receive life imprisonment if convicted by a jury of military officers.

During questioning by military prosecutor John Murphy, the FBI agent said Hamdan heard a conversation between bin Laden and one of his deputies about the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"He saw and heard Al-Qaeda individuals watching a video in the guest house in Kandahar (in Afghanistan) and describing tactical mistakes" made in the embassy attacks, Soufan said.

As Hamdan "understood they were involved in Al-Qaeda and US embassy attacks," the prosecutor asked if he decided to leave bin Laden.

"No sir," Soufan replied.

After he heard about the attack on the USS Cole naval destroyer in 2000 in the Yemeni port of Aden, Hamdan allegedly told bin Laden he did not think Al-Qaeda was behind the attack. But his comment drew a smile from bin Laden, according to Soufan.

Amid a flurry of activity at different locations in Afghanistan before the attacks of September 11, 2001, "bin Laden told Hamdan that an operation was on its way and that they had to move," Soufan said.

Bin Laden moved to Kabul, then Jalalabad, keeping his planned movements secret even from his inner circle, he said.

During one trip, Hamdan heard a conversation in the backseat in which "bin Laden was happy with the result" of the attacks that "killed more people than he expected."

He also heard another conversation about the "fourth plane," a reference to a United Airlines plane hijacked on September 11 that crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers revolted against the attackers.

"If they did not shoot the fourth plane, it could have hit the dome," Soufan said.

No evidence has indicated the United plane was shot down, with flight recorders and cell phone calls describing an assault by the passengers against the hijackers.

The "dome" is an apparent reference to the domed US Congress building -- the possible intended target of the hijacked aircraft.

The aircraft, bound for San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey, had been diverted by the hijackers towards Washington.

Hamdan's defense lawyers have portrayed Hamdan as an insignificant figure without any role in Al-Qaeda operations.

Hamdan, looking tired and at times dejected during Wednesday's proceedings, entered a plea of not guilty on Monday. The trial, the first US war crimes proceeding since World War II, is expected to last at least two weeks.

The Bush administration has been blasted by human rights groups and foreign governments for holding inmates for years at Guantanamo without giving them the right to defend themselves in court.

Of the 260 detainees currently in Guantanamo, only around 20 have been charged with a crime and the government says it plans to put only 60 to 80 of them on trial.

Date created : 2008-07-23