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Unbearable Pain and Sorrow That Never Goes Away

05/15/2015 07:38 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

It was no surprise on Friday in Manhattan federal court when convicted Osama bin Laden lieutenant Khaled al-Fawwaz received a life sentence for terrorism. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan had done this twice before. In 2011, following the only trial of a former Guantanamo detainee on U.S. soil, Kaplan sent away for life convicted U.S. embassy bomber Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. Last September, the judge issued the same sentence to Sulieman Abu Ghaith, the al Qaeda spokesman at bin Laden's side on September 12, 2001, and many months afterward.

Like Ghaliani, al-Fawwaz stood convicted of participating in the conspiracy behind the August 7, 1998, twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, al Qaeda's most lethal attack anywhere in the world prior to 9/11.

The attacks killed 224 people. Eleven American families lost loved ones that day in the Nairobi blast; two victims were a father and son from the same family, Julian and Jay Bartley.

"Al-Fawwaz, you are a travesty to the human race," Edith Bartley told the defendant in the first of three victim impact statements. "After nearly 17 years, it is still difficult to believe my father and brother will never walk the Earth."

Wearing a mournful black dress and top, Bartley recalled milestones and holidays she and her mother, Sue, missed without diplomat Julian, the U.S. consul general in Kenya, and college student Jay, an embassy intern. Their loss has been "an unbearable pain and sorrow that never goes away," she said.

The other 213 people killed were citizens of Kenya and Tanzania. Their relatives filled two rows in the packed courtroom gallery.

Connie Orende spoke about her brother, Eric Abur Onyanga, 32, who worked at the embassy and was "the breadwinner of the family." He left a wife, a young daughter, and aging parents. Orende said, "For my mother, who is now 78, no day goes by without her shedding tears."

Thousands of people were wounded in the embassy bombings, many maimed with severe lifelong injuries. One of those was Ellen Karas (formerly Bomer), a Commerce Department official detailed to the Kenya embassy in 1998. She was supposed to leave August 6 but agreed to a two-week extension of duty.

"My life was changed forever 16 years, 9 months, and 8 days ago," Karas said.

That morning, inside her embassy office, she heard two bangs that sounded like car backfires. Unknown to her, it was Mohamed al-'Owhali, an al Qaeda trainee in the passenger seat of the bomb truck, who had jumped out and fired flash grenades to distract the embassy guards. Karas and a colleague went to the window to see what was going on. The colleague, wearing a blue business suit, stood on a chair.

"That was the last thing I saw," Karas told the court. Four hours later, rescuers dug her out of the rubble. The explosion had sent shards of window glass flying. She endured 34 eye surgeries.

"I am totally blind," Karas said. "I had a career ahead of me. It's gone. Now I have a guide dog."

Karas was previously stationed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, al-Fawwaz's home country. "I met no one like you," she told the defendant. "I worship the same God you worship, but my God is not a vengeful and angry God."

When it was his turn to speak, al-Fawwaz asked the court's permission to face the victims. The 53-year-old Saudi, wearing standard issue jail garb and white Muslim kufi, put on glasses, and read a prepared one page-statement in English.

"I can't find words to describe how sorry I am for all the tragedy and violence that occurred and the pain and suffering," al-Fawwaz said. "I do not support violence. I never intended for any of my activities to contribute to it."

Al-Fawwaz described himself as a reformer, not a revolutionary, who had desired, like the bin Laden of old, to change the Saudi monarchy. "I hope that God provides peace and comfort to you and your families," he said.

After his apology, Assistant United States Attorney Sean Buckley labeled al-Fawwaz "unrepentant" and deserving the maximum sentence. Defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim asked for a lesser sentence, noting al-Fawwaz's lack of a prior criminal record and good behavior in UK and U.S. custody for the past 16 years.

Judge Kaplan said he considered issuing less than a life sentence but would not do so. Kaplan told al-Fawwaz, "As far as your statement is concerned, I don't credit it as truthful." The judge said al Qaeda's program was "to instill terror in the people of this country" with a campaign of threats publicized and carried out. "You were all in on that program," the judge said.

Kaplan described al-Fawwaz's London-based, Saudi dissident Advice and Reformation Committee as "a Trojan horse" to conceal the real bin Laden agenda. "The violence bin Laden pursued was a means to an end, an end you shared."

Prior to the sentencing hearing, the al-Fawwaz trial was noteworthy for its hard-to-come-by these days, historic revelations about al Qaeda, as well as the defendant's role in the group being more elevated than previously understood.

When al-Fawwaz was first detained in Britain, in September 1998, he was depicted as a kind of bin Laden press secretary who distributed al Qaeda's declarations of war on America for publication and booked interviews with CNN, ABC News, and Arab reporters, including the one who made the first journalistic visit, in 1996, to bin Laden's Tora Bora mountain hideout.

The trial revealed al-Fawwaz had a significant role in al Qaeda's formative years - as an trainer at the Afghanistan military camps and starting the East Africa cell that sent fighters to Somalia when U.S. troops were deployed, and later, carried out the embassy bombings. An al Qaeda charter membership list unveiled at the trial after 13 years in U.S. hands ranked al-Fawwaz as member #9.

Two co-defendants supposed to share the defense table died of cancer, Ibrahim Eidarous, and Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruquai, better known by his nomme de guerre, Anas al-Libi. Al-Libi, snatched by the U.S. military from the streets of Tripoli, Libya, in October 2013, after years as an indicted fugitive, had challenged the admissibility of his confessions on the plane ride back to the U.S., though Judge Kaplan never ruled on the suppression motion. Prosecutors teased but never got to show a cache of correspondence between al-Libi and bin Laden in the months before Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Abbottobad, Pakistan. A third co-defendant, Adel Abdel Bary, pleaded guilty before trial and received a 25-year sentence, with 16 years already served.

The trial also unmasked a new cooperating witness - an Egyptian-American al Qaeda operative from Florida who was the group's first pilot and U.S. flight school student. The testimony by Ihab Mohamed Ali showed how he paved the way for 9/11 conspirators Zacarias Moussaoui and Mohammed Atta.

The Bureau of Prisons will decided whether al-Fawwaz is incarcerated at the nation's "super" maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, along with five other men previously convicted in the embassy bombings conspiracy, Moussaoui, and a host of notorious terrorists. Florence would have been the destination of Boston Marathon bomber Johar Tsarnaev had his jury declined to impose the death penalty on him.

Among the two-dozen African visitors flown by the Justice Department to watch the al-Fawwaz sentencing hearing were a number of women widowed by the embassy bombings. Afterward, they said they appreciated the "transparency" of the U.S. system. They did not think much of the defendant's statement.

"Water that has spilled you cannot reconnect," said Elizabeth Maloba, whose husband, Frederick, was a budget analyst at the Kenya embassy.

"It has been so difficult for me," said Rosemary Onewe, who raised three children alone when her husband, Francis Olewe, an economic specialist at the embassy, died in the blast.

Grace Gicho, whose husband, Peter Macharia, worked in accounting, said her 17-year-old daughter, then one, knows her father only through videos and a memorial in Nairobi. Gicho, a hairdresser, said, "I am the breadwinner now."

20-year-old Victor Maina mau have been the youngest attendee from Kenya, a university student studying criminology. "It impacted me a lot," he said of the bombing.
He was three when his father, Francis, who worked in the embassy's shipping department, was killed.

"It's a sad thing," he said. At the time, his younger sister was eight-months-old, and his mother was eight months pregnant with his younger brother. When asked if he had any memories of his father, Maina replied, "Just the pictures."

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