GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A former driver for Osama bin Laden knew the target of the fourth hijacked plane on Sept. 11, a prosecutor said Tuesday as he sought to undercut defense arguments that the Guantanamo prisoner was a low-level employee of the terrorist leader.
Salim Hamdan, the first prisoner to face a U.S. war-crimes trial since World War II, heard bin Laden say the plane was heading for "the dome," an apparent reference to the U.S. Capitol, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone.
The plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers overcame the hijackers.
"Virtually no one knew the intended target, but the accused knew," Stone told the jury of six U.S. military officers in his opening statement.
Hamdan is charged with conspiracy and aiding terrorism. The defense says the prisoner, a Yemeni with a fourth-grade education, was merely a driver for bin Laden and had no significant role in al-Qaida's terrorist attacks.
"The evidence is that he worked for wages, he didn't wage attacks on America," Harry Schneider, one of Hamdan's civilian defense attorneys, told the jury. "He had a job because he had to earn a living, not because he had a jihad against America."
But prosecutors say that as bin Laden's personal driver, he helped the al-Qaida leader evade U.S. retribution after the Sept. 11 attacks and transport weapons for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
To support that claim, prosecutors called as their first witness a U.S. special forces soldier who described finding two surface-to-air missiles in the car Hamdan was driving when Afghan forces captured him in November 2001.
A second American military officer, identified only as "Sgt. Maj. A.," testified that soldiers also found in Hamdan's car an al-Qaida weapons manual and a permit with an Arabic greeting that the Taliban issued to al-Qaida members to carry weapons in Afghanistan.
"You will not see evidence from the government that the accused ever fired a shot," Stone said. "But what you will see is testimony regarding the accused's role in al-Qaida, how he became a member of al-Qaida and how he helped, facilitated and provided material support for that organization."
An FBI agent who has researched the command structure of al-Qaida, Ali Soufan, testified that Hamdan reported for some duties to the head of a security unit equivalent to the U.S. Secret Service.
"The people who are around bin Laden have to be people who are looked into and trusted," he said. "They can't be bought, they are true believers in the cause."
Soufan, a native Arabic speaker, is expected to testify Wednesday about a series of interrogations he conducted with Hamdan in Guantanamo in 2002.
Hamdan faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. The trial is expected to take three to four weeks. The U.S. says it plans to prosecute about 80 prisoners at Guantanamo.