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Security threats inside and out for 9/11 trial

Security worries in bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 suspects to trial in New York City could be just as big inside the courthouse as outside.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hot sauce and a comb were all an al-Qaida suspect in New York needed to nearly kill one of his guards nine years ago. The bloody episode suggests that security worries in bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 suspects to trial here could be just as big inside the courthouse as outside.

Already, the U.S. marshals are promising the highest security possible — an acknowledgement of how dangerous terrorism suspects have been in the past.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday that Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the 2001 attacks, and four accused henchmen would be brought from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to New York to face a civilian federal trial.

The prosecution is planned for a court complex just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers were destroyed in the attack blamed on these men. The courthouse is among the most secure in the nation, ringed by closed-off streets, 24-hour guard posts, anti-truck-bomb barricades and street video cameras so powerful that they can read the print off a passerby's newspaper.

Intense debate over security risks
The Sept. 11 case would be the most spectacular of a half dozen major terrorism trials in New York that have already sent away the men blamed for the less devastating 1993 bombing of the trade center, a plot to blow up five landmarks in New York City, a scheme to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners over the Far East and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

Holder's decision to try the Sept. 11 suspects sparked debate over the security risks posed to densely-populated lower Manhattan, but far less has been said about attempted violence by the defendants themselves.

At the same federal lock-up where Mohammed and the others are to be held, federal prison guard Louis Pepe was attacked in late 2000 by Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a former top aide to bin Laden who was awaiting trial in the embassies case.

Salim surprised Pepe by using a squeezable plastic honey bear container filled with hot sauce as a kind of homemade pepper spray that temporarily blinded the guard.

The inmate then took a plastic comb ground into the shape of a dagger and plunged it into Pepe's left eye. The point pierced deep into his brain, causing severe permanent injury to his sight, speech, and movement.

After the attack, prosecutors say papers found in the cell showed Salim's plan had been to take hostages inside the prison and free his co-defendants. While such a "breakout" plot may sound far-fetched given the security of the federal buildings, in Salim's case the very attempt nearly killed someone.

‘The prison is not very secure’
Salim's lawyer in that case, Richard Lind, said he had "mixed feelings" about Holder's decision, because while he believes the suspects should be tried in civilian court, he has security concerns.

"The prison is not very secure," Lind said. "Maybe things have improved since then, but I think it would be very difficult to manage."

Bureau of Prison spokesman Edmond Ross said: "We ensure that the facility is secure and is run in a secure fashion, but I'm not aware that any particular heightened security procedures are going to be implemented."

It is likely, though, that the attorney general will approve extra security called "special administrative measures" — reserved for the most dangerous prisoners. SAMs, as they are called, prohibit a defendant from communicating with other prisoners, the media, or anyone not connected to their legal defense.

When Mohammed and the others are taken from their cells to the courtroom, U.S. marshals will provide security.

There, too, the last major al-Qaida trial serves as a warning.

Suspect raced toward judge
During a pre-trial hearing, al-Qaida suspect Wadih El-Hage leaped out of a jury box that held several defendants and raced toward the judge, who maneuvered his tall black chair in front of him as a shield. The defendant was tackled by a deputy U.S. marshal and slammed against a wall next to an American flag, about a dozen feet from the judge.

The trial was held in a large ceremonial courtroom with its own security check — a sort of perimeter within the perimeter. Outside the building, heavily-armed marshals stood guard. When hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11, 2001, those same marshals rushed to the scene to join rescue efforts.

Jeff Carter, a spokesman for the marshals, said the agency will provide the maximum possible security. Both the marshals and Bureau of Prisons have "extensive experience managing the security of dangerous defendants and alleged terrorists in the U.S. judicial system," he said.

Even with extra security, some are convinced trial in a civilian court is a bad idea. The most high-profile critic so far has been former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said over the weekend the decision displayed "a lack of concern for the rights of the public."

New York Gov. David Paterson said Monday that holding the trial in the city "is not a decision that I would have made."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to calm any fears.

"This is nothing new; we've done this a lot," said Bloomberg. "Every time there's a high profile case, we provide enhanced security. A lot of it you don't see, but it's there."

Josh Dratel, a lawyer who represented El-Hage, said it was right to bring Mohammed and others to trial in New York, both for legal reasons and because, he said, "there's nothing that makes New York more of a target" than it already is.