A Yemeni admitted he was a driver for Osama bin Laden and knew of the al-Qaida leader’s role in the Sept. 11 attack, an FBI agent testified Thursday, countering defense assertions that the detainee was a minor employee with no role in terrorism.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan told FBI agents that he had chauffeured bin Laden around Afghanistan in an al-Qaida convoy after Sept. 11 and overheard the leader say he had expected only up to 1,500 people to be killed in the attack, Special Agent George Crouch said.
“When Osama bin Laden learned it was much larger than that he was very pleased,” Crouch recalled Hamdan telling him and two other FBI agents during one of a dozen interrogation sessions at Guantanamo in the summer of 2002.
The testimony, which revealed more about the allegations against Hamdan than previously known, came in a pretrial hearing to determine whether the detainee can be prosecuted before the first U.S. military tribunals since the World War II era. Hamden, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly six years, is charged with conspiracy and supporting terrorism.
Prosecutors called witnesses to bolster their case that Hamdan is an unlawful enemy combatant eligible to face the special court. The defense maintains he was only one of several drivers for bin Laden and had no knowledge or role in any terrorist attacks.
Defense lawyers want him declared a prisoner of war, which would entitle him to greater legal protections than those now afforded to prisoners at Guantanamo who are designated as “unlawful enemy combatants.”
Worked closely with bin Laden, agent says
Crouch said Hamdan left his native Yemen in 1996 to become an Islamic fighter in the former Soviet state of Tajikistan. After failing to get in, Hamden ended up in Afghanistan, where he was hired as driver by bin Laden and later became a member of the leader’s security detachment, the agent said.
Just before the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of the U.S. embassies in the East African nations of Tanzania and Kenya, Hamdan helped evacuate bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, at the orders of superiors who feared retaliation, Crouch testified.
“This was going to be the first time Osama bin Laden was going to go toe-to-toe or face-to-face with the United States and he was unsure what the reaction would be,” the agent said.
Knowledge beyond 9/11Hamden also knew of bin Laden’s involvement in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and drove the al-Qaida leader to a news conference at which he warned of an impending attack, Crouch said.
Earlier, a U.S. Army officer described Hamdan’s capture, saying he wasn’t wearing a uniform when he was captured in November 2001 in Afghanistan while driving a car with two surface-to-air missiles inside. The testimony was intended to underscore the U.S. contention that Hamden was not a traditional soldier deserving POW status.
Defense lawyers used cross examination of the officer to point out that many Afghan fighters under U.S. command did not wear what might be considered typical military garb and that no other weapons were found in Hamdan's car — even though he had a permit from the Taliban to carry a sidearm. They also noted Hamdan did not resist capture.
The defense plans to call a college professor who has studied al-Qaida and says there were minor associates who had no real role in terrorism, but Crouch said the FBI believed Hamdan could not have been ignorant of the group’s workings.
“It didn’t make sense to us as investigators that an individual assigned to drive Osama bin Laden, and be so close, would not be part of al-Qaida or have understanding of inner workings of al-Qaida,” Crouch said.
First witnesses since new rules
The FBI agent and the Army major were the first witnesses to testify at a Guantanamo hearing since Congress and the Bush administration last year came up with new rules for military trials, known as commissions, after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the old version.
On Wednesday, the military judge presiding at the hearing rejected a defense request to talk to the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack and two other “high value” detainees who are also prisoners at this isolated Navy base.
Hamdan, who wore a flowing white robe and a gray-checkered sports coat at the hearing, faces up to life in prison if tried and convicted.
He was first charged more than three years ago. But his prosecution has been delayed by legal challenges, including one he filed that went to the Supreme Court and resulted in the striking down last year of the original rules for military tribunals.
The U.S. now holds about 305 prisoners here on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida and the Taliban and plans to prosecute about 80. So far, only three detainees have been formally charged and one, Australian David Hicks, was convicted in a plea bargain and sent home.