The U.S. government opened its first war crimes prosecution Tuesday with a narrative of Osama bin Laden's driver overhearing his boss offer an eerie postmortem in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks:
“If they hadn't shot down the fourth plane, it would've hit the dome,” declared Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone.
And so with his first words to a military jury, the Pentagon prosecutor conjured up a conversation from inside the world of al-Qaida, revealed by the accused, driver Salim Hamdan. Bin Laden told his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahari, that U.S. forces – not heroic passengers – brought down United Airlines Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field on 9-11 before terrorist hijackers could slam it into “the dome” of the U.S. Capitol.
Hamdan, 37, of Yemen is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terror, accused of serving as the al-Qaida godfather's driver, sometime bodyguard and weapons courier.
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Prosecutors put him at the heart of the conspiracy – driving bin Laden to a meeting with some of the 9-11 co-conspirators, to an al-Jazeera interview, to a Ramadan feast at a paramilitary training camp to “further recruit and indoctrinate young individuals for their organization.”
Defense attorneys cast him as a nobody, an orphan who left the poverty of Yemen for Afghanistan and became bin Laden's $200-a-month driver because “he had to earn a living, not because he had a jihad against America.”
Moreover, the defense contends Hamdan offered to help the U.S. while in Afghanistan.
Stone called the driver a trusted insider who, as early as 1998, after the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, whisked bin Laden from an Afghan training camp ahead of a series of retaliatory U.S. strikes. “By the accused's help,” said Stone, “we missed.”
The spectator's gallery was nearly half-empty as the two sides addressed a military jury of six U.S. colonels and lieutenant colonels, whose names are withheld by order of the judge.
The Pentagon was bringing in some 30 international and American journalists later in the day to watch a slice of the historic trial.
Hamdan sat somberly in traditional Yemeni garb, stroking a wisp of a beard while the Pentagon prosecutor in Navy whites laid out the government's case, for which the Pentagon seeks life in prison.
“You will not see evidence from the government that the accused fired a shot,” Stone said. “What you will see is testimony regarding the accused's role in al-Qaida, how he became a member of al-Qaida and helped, facilitated and provided material support for that organization.”