It was 4 o'clock on a cold, neon-lit morning in New Jersey last Feb. 26 when a yellow Ryder rental van pulled into a Jersey City service station. A blue Honda sedan was right behind it. The attendants were more alert than usual at that hour because the station had recently been robbed. But these customers wanted only gas. The Honda's driver, a tall, red-haired, freckled man, paid for both vehicles with a $50 bill. A curious attendant tried to peer into the van. The driver, a younger, wiry man with a full beard, suddenly hopped out and planted himself in front of a side window, blocking the view.
Eight hours later, the van made history. It disintegrated into thousands of pieces as the 1,200-lb. bomb it was carrying thundered through the parking garage of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, tearing a 200-ft.-wide crater in the basement of the world's second tallest building. Six people were killed, and more than 1,000 were injured. The worst terrorist attack on American soil sent federal agents scrambling on a global manhunt. One of the suspects, a 33-year-old redhead, was captured in his native Egypt by government agents, brutally tortured until he confessed to the bombing and then flown back to America to stand trial. His name: Mahmud Abouhalima. Prosecutors say Abouhalima, a former New York City taxi driver, was the ) motorist who paid for the fuel on that February morning in Jersey City. But his significance doesn't end there. The U.S. contends that he is the epitome of the modern terrorist, a self-made commando pursuing a homemade agenda to disrupt Western civilization.
Today Abouhalima and three colleagues sit quietly in Courtroom 318 in downtown Manhattan, six blocks from the Twin Towers, watching intently as their lawyers and the prosecutors joust over the selection of jurors. So prominent is the case that U.S. District Judge Kevin Duffy rounded up 5,000 citizens in his effort to assemble an unbiased jury -- 10 times the number called for last year's sensational trial of Mob chieftain John Gotti. Opening arguments in the bombing case are expected to begin next week. The trial will probably take three to four months, all the while under heavy security provided by dozens of extra police officers.
The proceedings are the first of at least two trials in which 22 Islamic fundamentalists -- including Mahmud's younger brother Mohammed -- will be tried for taking part in a massive plot to undermine the U.S. government. The catalog of charges, according to New York University law scholar Stephen Gillers, amounts to "the gravest allegations to come out of any American court in this century." Among the accusations: bombing the Trade Center, murdering the militant Zionist Rabbi Meir Kahane, plotting to kill Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and scheming to blow up two major highway tunnels and other New York City landmarks.