New york was way ahead. Mary Jo White, then the U.S. Attorney for Manhattan and the Bronx, indicted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged Al Qaeda “mastermind” recently rousted from slumber in Pakistan, back in 1998. There’s no chance, however, that the Bush administration will ever move Mohammed from his undisclosed location to a federal courtroom downtown to answer charges that he plotted to blow up a dozen American commercial flights.
Which is too bad. Because while it’s somewhat reassuring that Mohammed is locked up, simply reading and hearing about his capture is woefully inadequate. All over the city, people found themselves discussing torture techniques to use on him. Or at least wondering what the moral limits are: If we can’t torture him, how about turning him over to someone who can? It’s clear that we want Mohammed—and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden—in a visceral way that mere incarceration won’t satisfy. What New York, the place that suffered worst on September 11, needs and deserves is a war-crimes trial of its very own.
Fortunately, we’re already holding an alleged Al Qaeda big shot—a man who may have been as close to bin Laden as Khalid Mohammed. He’s down on Park Row, in a nine-by-fourteen-foot cell. Waiting.
Mamdouh Salim is a highly educated, fiercely disciplined man with two sons attending medical school. And he’s done at least one evil thing.
On November 1, 2000, as Salim and another prisoner were being moved inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Salim splashed hot sauce in the face of a prison guard. When Officer Louis Pepe struggled, Salim stabbed him through the left eye with a sharpened plastic comb, blinding Pepe and inflicting severe brain damage.
Salim, 44, pleaded guilty to that attack. His explanation wasn’t exactly reassuring: Salim claimed he wasn’t trying to escape or injure Pepe—he just wanted to break away from the guard to kill two of his defense lawyers, who were standing nearby.
An even more sinister murder plot had landed Salim in U.S. custody in the first place. In August 1998, the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were blown up. The blasts killed 224 people and injured thousands. One month later, Salim was arrested in Munich by German police. Sure, he told them, he worked for Osama bin Laden—but only as a salaried employee managing bin Laden’s Sudanese agricultural business. He also admitted to some business dealings in Germany: opening a bank account that gave signature power to Mamoun Darkazanli, who has acknowledged links to several of the September 11 hijackers.
Prosecutors at the embassy-bombing trial, in New York in 2001, painted Salim as a far more active participant in bin Laden’s operation. Jamal Ahmet al-Fadl, the government’s star witness, described Salim as bin Laden’s “best friend”—not only a top adviser but a key member of Al Qaeda’s fatwa committee.
According to The Age of Sacred Terror, by former National Security Council officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, Salim was also pivotal in bin Laden’s attempts to buy weapons of mass destruction, and was involved in the early nineties in chemical-weapons development in Sudan. Moreover, in the mid-nineties, the Iraq-born Salim supposedly put his knowledge and his nationality to use as Al Qaeda’s liaison to Iraqi intelligence.
Salim was set to stand trial in February 2001 along with four other embassy defendants. He had argued in pre-trial motions that he should be tried separately since he, unlike the others, wasn’t charged with actually carrying out the African bombings. The judge denied his request, but the stabbing of Pepe accomplished the same thing: Two of Salim’s lawyers witnessed the attack on the jail guard and so had to be replaced. Salim’s new lawyer, Allan Haber, needed time to prepare a defense. Salim has yet to be sentenced for the stabbing, further delaying his embassy-bombing trial.
“The trial of Mamdouh Salim would be a chance for Al Qaeda’s victims to finally face one of their alleged victimizers.”
During Salim’s time in jail, the government has attempted, without apparent success, to get him to cooperate. “We want to flip these guys,” a prosecution source says. “America doesn’t want to think of itself this way, but with Mohammed, for instance, we may want to make some subliminal suggestions to him about the safety of his kids. It’s a process with these guys, and it can take many years.”
Haber insists his client is a peaceful family man. “He was shocked by 9/11. He says whoever did this is not a Muslim,” Haber says. And Salim looks forward to testifying. “He wouldn’t use a trial like Moussaoui, who is spiteful and wants to talk about oppression,” Haber says. “Salim wants to educate people about what a good Muslim does and doesn’t do.”
Unless Mamdouh Salim is singing to investigators—and after nearly five years in jail, any information he may have is likely stale—we should go ahead and let him pontificate in open court. Give him all the rights granted in the democratic system we’re eager to spread. Salim’s criminal trial undoubtedly would be a media circus. It would also be a fat terrorist target.
It may be worth the spectacle and the risk. The 1993 trial of the World Trade Center bombers and the 2001 trial of four other embassy-bombing conspirators both shook loose useful clues. Their detailed portraits of Al Qaeda’s structure and goals could have helped secure the homeland a long time ago, if U.S. politicians and law-enforcement agencies had followed up.
The other benefits would be more abstract, but no less vital. Ever since September 11, this city has expressed its rage and anguish in an inspiring variety of forms. The recent design competition for the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site emphasized how deep our desire for a memorial runs.
Still, except for the New Yorkers serving in the armed forces, or the NYPD detectives interrogating prisoners in Afghanistan, there have been few ways to confront Al Qaeda firsthand. The trial of Mamdouh Salim would be a chance for Al Qaeda’s victims to finally face one of their alleged victimizers. And to show him, and the world, that even our most barbarous enemies can’t strip us of our civility.