NEW YORK — NEW YORK - The trial in the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa is to begin this morning in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and indications are that the government's first witness will be an informer who worked for the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden until 1996, when he agreed to cooperate with the American authorities.
The witness could take the stand as early as tomorrow, after both sides finish their opening statements. The government has been concealing the identity of the witness, a convicted terrorist known only as "CS-1," for almost five years and has resisted all attempts by defense lawyers to learn his identity.
CS-1 is the basis for many of the significant charges in the indictment, including allegations that bin Laden's group trained those who carried out the fatal ambush of American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, that he cooperated with other terrorist groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and sought to obtain materials that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Indications that CS-1 would be the government's first witness arose during a meeting with Judge Leonard B. Sand last Wednesday attended by prosecutors and defense lawyers. The transcript of the meeting shows that discussion centered on a witness who was not identified but who was said to have reached a plea agreement with the government, had been extensively debriefed by the FBI, and would provide two days of testimony on issues that might include the attacks in Somalia. In addition, people close to the case said defense lawyers had been told that CS-1 is likely to be the first witness.
Prosecutors, in their opening presentation, are expected to outline their case for the jury that bin Laden orchestrated a global terrorist conspiracy that included the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded thousands; and the Somali attacks, in which 18 American soldiers died.
Bin Laden, who has been indicted in the case, remains a fugitive, and is believed to be living in Afghanistan. But prosecutors are expected to contend that the four defendants were integral parts of the broader conspiracy, which the government says spanned much of the last decade and reached into dozens of countries.
The trial is expected to last nine or 10 months. Members of the jury will be referred to only by numbers to ensure security and privacy.
"I really believe that the trial is going to be a great moral test for the nation," said David P. Baugh, one of the lawyers for Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, a 24-year-old Saudi citizen who could face the death penalty.
"America is going to try people who, according to the indictment, hate America," Baugh said. "Our constitutional principles are tested the most when we have people the population would view as despicable."
The other defendants are Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a 27-year-old Tanzanian who is the other defendant who could face execution; Wadih El-Hage, 40, a naturalized American citizen from Lebanon; and Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a 35-year-old Jordanian. The other two face possible life imprisonment if convicted.