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'Urban Terrorism' Suspects Enter Not Guilt Plea in NY Bomb Plot

By Robert L. Jackson
Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK

Their hands manacled behind them, radical Muslim Sheik Abdel-Rahman and 14 followers stood silent in a heavily guarded courtroom Thursday as a judge entered in their behalf pleas of "not guilty" to conspiring "to levy a war of urban terrorism against the United States."

As the suspects made their court appearance, State Department officials in Washington took note of threats from Abdel-Rahman's followers abroad and warned American tourists to be "conscious of their own security and safety" as they travel.

The department's warning was in response to a statement signed by three radical groups in Egypt which said, "We will take revenge on all U.S. interests and citizens, either in Egypt or outside, if any harm occurs to Sheik Omar."

The blind cleric, dressed in his trademark red and white Islamic cap, dark glasses and light blue prison clothing, sat through much of the court proceeding with his head bowed, listening to an Arabic translation through headphones. Asked about his view of events, Abdel-Rahman's attorney, Harry Batchelder, quoted his client saying, "The struggle begins."

Most of the defendants accused in the government's new indictment had appeared in court this summer to claim they were innocent of charges they tried to bomb United Nations headquarters and two New York commuter tunnels.

But Wednesday's indictment marked the first time Abdel-Rahman had been charged. In addition, the new charges accused him and the others of being members of a ring that also planned the World Trade Center bombing, an event last February that killed six persons and injured more than 1,000.

State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said he knew of no "specific, credible" threat from followers of Abdel-Rahman, who has lived in the United States since 1990. But the threat is serious enough, he said, that diplomatic posts abroad also are being asked "to review their security procedures and determine if any changes are needed."

The crowded courtroom was ringed by more than 40 federal marshals, and dozens of New York policemen were stationed outside the courthouse behind police barricades. Officials said they were concerned that other members of the terrorist cell may be at large.

"Whether or not we've identified the major players, obviously there's a concern that there may be others out there that we don't know about," federal prosecutor Matthew Fishbein said.

To speed their arraignment, U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey chose not to ask all 15 defendants to state a plea. Rather, he asked if anyone pleaded other than not guilty, and hearing only silence, entered innocent pleas for all.

A defendant who appeared in the case for the first time was El Sayyid Nosair, who has been serving a long sentence in New York's Attica State Prison on weapons charges related to the 1990 assassination of militant Jewish rabbi Meir Kahane.

Although he was acquitted of state murder charges in 1991, Nosair was charged in the latest indictment with "violence by racketeering" in connection with Kahane's death, indicating that federal prosecutors have new evidence of his involvement in that offense.

The indictment alleged that Kahane's killing was part of the "war of urban terrorism" waged by Abdel-Rahman, Nosair and others in the ring. Additionally, the defendants were accused of planning to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on a visit to the United States last April.

Egypt is still pressing for Adel-Rahman's return on charges that he instigated anti-government riots there in 1989. But McCurry, the State Department spokesman, told a briefing that the sheik will have to "face justice here first."