GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A driver for Osama bin Laden lacked the education and skills for admission to the al Qaeda leader’s inner circle, a defense witness testified on Wednesday at his Guantanamo war-crimes trial.
“I don’t see him being that quality of material,” Dr. Brian Williams, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an expert on central Asian jihadists, said of defendant Salim Hamdan.
Hamdan, a Yemeni with a fourth-grade education, earned $200 a month as a driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and is the first prisoner to be tried in the special military tribunal at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He could face life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.
Prosecutors portray him as a trusted bin Laden aide who sometimes acted as his bodyguard and helped him avoid capture, and who enthusiastically supported the al Qaeda leader even after hearing him gloat about the death toll from the September 11 attacks.
The defense portrays Hamdan as an uneducated laborer who joined the bin Laden motor pool because he needed the wages to support himself and get married, but who had no prior knowledge of al Qaeda attacks.
Wilson testified at length about al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban and with Arab fighters in Afghanistan, where Hamdan was captured in November 2001.
Speaking by videoconference from the Incirlik U.S. air base in Turkey, he testified that bin Laden and his deputies visited weapons training camps and recruited for terrorism assignments those who spoke foreign languages, were well educated, could move easily in Western nations or had elite skills.
“I don’t see Salim Hamdan by any stretch of the imagination fitting this profile,” said Wilson, who has done consulting work for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
He said he had interviewed many fighters who attended weapons training camps in Afghanistan but denounced the September 11 attacks and despised al Qaeda. He also said bin Laden’s attack plans were closely held and not shared with the legions of employees who worked for his farms, construction companies and other enterprises.
“Many of these people were hired, given salaries and knew nothing about the inner workings of al Qaeda,” Wilson said.
Under questioning by the prosecutor, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone, Wilson agreed that bin Laden was a terrorist.
“You would agree that driving and supporting and protecting Osama bin Laden would be supporting a terrorist?” Stone asked.
Replied Wilson, “If he was involved and knew terrorist activity was to take place, yes.”
Prosecutors expect to finish presenting their evidence on Wednesday or Thursday in the first U.S. military tribunal since World War Two, and then the defense will begin its case. Wilson was a defense witness but testified out of order because he was spending the summer researching in Central Asia and would not be available later.
If the trial continues at the present pace, the jury of six U.S. military officers could begin deliberating their verdict within a week.
Editing by Eric Walsh