GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden’s driver overheard the al Qaeda leader saying he was happy about the death toll in the September 11 attacks and thought the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was shot down, according to one of the driver’s interrogators.
The evidence by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, was meant to support the case by prosecutors at the Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunal that the driver, Salim Hamdan, was close to al Qaeda’s leadership.
Hamdan, a Yemeni father of two with a fourth-grade education, is the first Guantanamo prisoner to face trial before the controversial tribunal at the remote base on Cuba. He faces life in prison if convicted.
“Bin Laden was happy about the results and he (Hamdan) heard bin Laden say he didn’t expect the operation to be that successful,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent. “He only thought 1,000 to 1,500 people would perish so he was happy with the results.”
Soufan also said Hamdan told him about a conversation he overheard when he was driving bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The two men were looking at a magazine which described the flight routes of the September 11 hijacked planes, Soufan said.
“If they didn’t shoot that fourth plane it would have hit the dome,” Soufan said bin Laden told Zawahiri, according to Hamdan’s account.
“I assumed (‘the dome’ meant) either Congress or the White House,” Soufan said. “Hamdan said he did not know what they mean by the dome.”
United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field. U.S. officials have never said it was shot down but there was speculation about the issue at the time.
Describing the relationship between the driver and the al Qaeda leader, Soufan said bin Laden had given Hamdan some marriage advice, suggesting he go back to Yemen and find a women from a “pious religious family,” and when Hamdan returned with a wife, bin Laden held a feast in celebration.
“It shows a close relationship, an affinity,” he said.
Hamdan is being tried in a court for terrorism suspects created by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks. His innocence or guilt will be decided by a jury of U.S. military officers who are fighting the war on terrorism.
The tribunal system has been loudly criticized as unfair by human rights groups and defense lawyers.
Prosecutors have portrayed Hamdan as a driver and bodyguard for the fugitive al Qaeda leader who had access to the Islamic militant group’s inner circle. Defense lawyers say he was just a hired hand in the motor pool who never joined al Qaeda.
On the third day of trial, Soufan, a prosecution witness who interrogated Hamdan, said bin Laden knew the September 11 hijackers and spoke highly of them.
“He praised them and their courage and he asked God to accept them as martyrs,” Soufan told the six-member jury.
Hamdan was able to identify some of the top al Qaeda leaders in photographs and a suicide bomber who struck the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
Prosecutors showed jurors a series of videos and pictures. Soufan identified bin Laden and Hamdan standing together.
In one, Hamdan was carrying a machine gun.
“Who gets to be that close to Osama bin Laden?” prosecutor John Murphy asked.
“People he trusts ... with his life, it appears,” Soufan said.
Editing by Michael Christie and David Storey