NEWS

Past Incident Highlights Risk of Detainees Themselves

By Matthew Harwood

While most of the security-related media attention surrounding the Obama administration's decision to try 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-conspirators in federal court has focused on protecting the prison, the courthouse, and New York City itself from external threats, the Associated Press today devotes some space to the possible threat the detainees pose while in custody.

These reasonable fears include a vicious attack nine years ago by an alleged al Qaeda detainee on a guard while imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center while he awaited trial for his involvement in the twin U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

At the same federal lockup where Mohammed and the others are to be held, federal prison guard Louis Pepe was attacked in late 2000 by Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a former top aide to Osama bin Laden who was awaiting trial in the embassies case.

Salim surprised Pepe by using a squeezable plastic honey bear container filled with hot sauce as a kind of homemade pepper spray that temporarily blinded the guard.

The inmate then took a plastic comb ground into the shape of a dagger and plunged it into Pepe's left eye. The point pierced deep into his brain, causing severe permanent injury to his sight, speech, and movement.

After the attack, prosecutors say papers found in the cell showed Salim's plan had been to take hostages inside the prison and free his co-defendants. While such a "breakout" plot may sound far-fetched given the security of the federal buildings, in Salim's case the very attempt nearly killed someone.

Salim's lawyer in that case, Richard Lind, said he had "mixed feelings" about Holder's decision, because while he believes the suspects should be tried in civilian court, he has security concerns.

"The prison is not very secure," Lind said. "Maybe things have improved since then, but I think it would be very difficult to manage." (For more on the specific details of Salim's attack, see GlobalSecurity.org)

For his attack on Pepe, Salim pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 32 years in prison, according to CNN.com. He is currently serving his sentence in Florence, Colorado, reports GlobalSecurity.org. Because of the attack, Salim was never tried for his alleged involvement in the embassy bombings, reports National Review.

To mitigate against such dangers, the AP says Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to approve "special administrative measures" for the five defendants. These SAMs would restrict the defendants from having minimal human contact outside their legal defense. When the defendants are moved from their prison cells to the courthouse, U.S. marshals will provide security during transport as well as inside the courtroom.

Yet even handling al Qaeda suspects inside of the courtroom has been problematic, notes the AP.

During a pretrial hearing sometime between his capture in September 1998 and conviction in May 2001 in connection to the embassy bombings, Wadih El-Hage, an aide to Osama Bin Laden, jumped out of the jury box and rushed the judge's bench. A U.S. marshal tackled and restrained him before he could do harm to the judge. At the time, according to Frontline, El-Hage was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility. He is currently serving life in prison in Springfield, Missouri, for his involvement in the African embassy bombings, reports GlobalSecurity.org.


♦ Photo of Mamdouh Mahmud Salim from HistoryCommons.org

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