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“We will not rest until these terrorists are brought to justice. We will hunt them down.” Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher made that statement on June 26, 1996, the day after a terrorist attack in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. A car bomb had detonated in the courtyard of the al-Khobar Towers apartment complex, leaving 19 U.S. airmen dead and 370 injured. All the victims were Americans. And all were there to enforce sanctions against neighboring Iraq. Earlier this year, just four days shy of the fifth anniversary of the attack, Louis Freeh — days away from exiting as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — announced the indictment of 14 defendants in connection with the car bomb. Today the Khobar Towers case, U.S. v. al-Mughassil, stands as an example of the difficulty, even futility, of bringing alleged terrorists to trial in the United States from overseas. Since the June 21 indictment, “nothing has happened” in the case, according to Sam Dibbley, speaking for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. And it appears highly unlikely that the case will progress any further. None of the accused are on U.S. soil. Of the 14 defendants, 11 are in Saudi custody. The remaining three are fugitives. All but one of the defendants are Saudi citizens. The United States and Saudi Arabia have no extradition treaty, and the kingdom has expressed its unwillingness to leave its citizens to the mercy of the U.S. criminal justice system. Saudi law bars U.S. investigators from even questioning the prisoners. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for an update on the status of the 11 prisoners by press time. But as of July 2, they were in Saudi prison awaiting trial in Saudi court for the bombing. Among them is Hani al-Sayegh, who was arrested in Canada in 1997 and then paroled into U.S. custody via Dulles International Airport. Al-Sayegh, the only one of the defendants who has come into U.S. custody, was thought to be the government’s best chance. He is alleged to be a prominent member of Saudi Hezbollah, active in recruiting new members, and with close ties to the Iranian government. But negotiations for a plea agreement between al-Sayegh and U.S. prosecutors fell apart. The United States handed him over to Saudi authorities in October 1999. The problems in trying to nail the Khobar defendants — the individuals that prosecutors feel they can prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — are just the beginning of the obstacles to nailing suspected terrorists. Perhaps the gravest issue is that the directors of a terrorist attack often remain outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement. For example, of the 21 men — including Osama bin Laden — indicted for the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, 13 remain fugitives. Only four have been tried and convicted. Others are awaiting trial in New York or are fighting extradition from Britain. In its verdict sheet against Khalfan Khamis Mohamed for his role in the Tanzania attack, the jury found that he “was not a leader or organizer of the conspiracy,” and that he was recruited as an “expendable” participant in the plot. Haroun Fazil, considered a primary point of contact for the embassy bombers, is not indicted in that case. Similarly, the first page of the Khobar indictment states that the groups allegedly behind the bombing “were inspired, supported, and directed by elements of the Iranian government.” Though the names of several men have circulated as likely “elements,” no public charges have been filed. At a Judiciary Committee meeting last week, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., expressed his impatience with the apparent intractability of the two cases. “What has the Department of Justice done to try to serve the warrants and take Osama bin Laden into custody?” he asked. Regarding the Khobar Towers case and the lack of indictment or even identification of Iranian officials suspected of furthering the conspiracy, Specter said, “The question comes in my mind as to whether we’re pulling our punches.” Attorneys who have been involved in cases against terrorists note that suspects tend to seek refuge in places where the United States has little pull. Members of terrorist organizations “typically hang out in no-man’s lands like the Western part of Lebanon or Afghanistan,” says William Barr, attorney general under former President George Bush and now general counsel at Verizon. Others may find refuge among sympathizers in Yemen or the Sudan, countries that don’t have what Montclair, N.J., defense attorney David Ruhnke terms a “let’s go get ‘em” approach to law enforcement. Ruhnke represented Mohamed, a Tanzanian national sentenced to life in prison on July 11 for his role in the 1998 bombing in Tanzania. Then there is the danger of exposing Americans to further harm. “The tension can be high” at trial, Ruhnke says. “You worry that someone, your client even, might try to use it as a forum for something else. What if someone decides to bomb the courthouse?” And prosecution, rather than deterring violence, may in fact beget retaliation. For example, Freeh told the Senate in 1999 that the November 1997 attack on tourists in Luxor, Egypt, and the murder that same month of four U.S. businessmen and their driver in Karachi, Pakistan, are thought to be in retaliation for the capture of Mir Amar Kasi. Kasi, a Pakistani, was retrieved from Afghanistan and convicted in Fairfax, Va., Circuit Court of the 1993 capital murder of two Central Intelligence Agency employees. Ruhnke adds that the likelihood of finding a truly impartial jury is a huge hurdle. His client and others in the embassy cases are part of an Islamic group called al Qaeda. The nature of the group, Ruhnke says, “is that they want to kill Americans anywhere in the world, and the jury was all Americans.” Finding an impartial jury for an individual accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks “will be 100 times harder,” Ruhnke says. “People will go through the motions of voir dire-ing jurors, and jurors will go through the motions of saying they can be impartial.” But the heart of the problem is that those who have, in the words of the Khobar indictment, “inspired, supported, and directed” acts of terrorism aren’t the ones being prosecuted. Those convicted in the 1998 embassy bombings, the men who may have aided the terrorists on the planes last week, the men who parked the truck at the Khobar Towers courtyard, “they’re not the people who are financing or leading these conspiracies,” Ruhnke says. Those who remain beyond the reach of the U.S. criminal justice system are. “I strongly oppose using law enforcement and the criminal justice process in terrorism situations,” Barr says. “The criminal justice system has proven itself to be ineffective.”

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