2012-05-11 / Front Page

Terror Thugs Are ‘Smaller Than Life’

Belle Harbor Couple At Gitmo Trial
By Howard Schwach


Christine and Cliff Russell, far left in this Associated Press photo, at Guantanamo Bay for the arraignment of the 9/11 terrorists. Christine and Cliff Russell, far left in this Associated Press photo, at Guantanamo Bay for the arraignment of the 9/11 terrorists. A Belle Harbor couple spent the day on a piece of tropical island called Guantanamo Bay on Saturday, May 5, but they were not there for a quick holiday getaway or a vacation.

Instead, Belle Harbor residents Christine and Cliff Russell were visitors to the famed American naval base on the island of Cuba to witness something they have been waiting for a long ten years; the arraignment of Muslim terrorists facing charges in the murder of nearly 3,000 civilians in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, including Cliff’s younger brother, Arverne resident and firefighter Stephen Russell, who was killed in the attack on September 11, 2001, along with a number of his brothers from Engine 55.

Cliff, an ironworker, spent months searching the pile for body parts and, on November 12, 2001, threw on his brother’s turnout gear to help fight the local fires caused by the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 only three blocks from his home.


A memorial to Stephen Russell and his fellow firefighters at his firehouse. A memorial to Stephen Russell and his fellow firefighters at his firehouse. Cliff and Christine felt that they had to go and see for themselves the men who ordered the death of Cliff’s brother.

“We’re desperately searching for closure, because it’s not coming on its own,” Cliff said. “I had to go to Gitmo and I did.”

“We were going no matter what,” his wife, Christine, who wore a photo of her brother-inlaw around her neck, added. “I definitely wanted to see them and see if they were what I thought and more. We’ve gone through so much for the past ten years, and now you want to find a conclusion for it all.”

Cliff says that he found something by sitting a few feet from the men who ordered the death of his brother, but it was not closure.

“I hate that word,” he told The Wave on Tuesday night. “For the lack of a better word, I would say that I found comfort in knowing that their trial is in good hands, that there are competent people on the prosecution team that will get the job done – if the politicians allow them to.”

“Sometimes, when you’re near somebody who has become a celebrity, they’re larger than life when you get close to them,” Cliff added. “These guys were not larger than life, they were smaller than life, smaller than you would have expected to do what they did. There was no ‘fear of God’ feeling being near them.”

Christine said she focused on KSM and that he “Didn’t look too threatening in real life.”

“He was very clean and well taken care of,” she said. “He looked clownish with his red beard.”

And, while many think that the naval base at Guantanamo Bay is not the proper venue for the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, better known as KSM, and his four co-defendants, Chris Russell thinks it’s just fine.

“This is the perfect spot for the trial,” Christine said of the Gitmo venue. “New York City has problems controlling parades, can you imagine what it would have been like to have this trial in the city, especially since the trial is supposed to take years.”

The Russells are among the relatives of those who died in the attacks who were chosen by lottery from among 250 to attend the start of the trial.

KSM, the boastful self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, sat in a small blue chair for hours at the opening of his capital murder trial – holding his tongue.

As Saturday wore on, it became clear that Mohammed and the four other defendants were staging a silent protest, aimed at both confounding the U.S. military court system here and demonstrating to the outside world that they do not acknowledge America’s control over them.

Mohammed, his beard dyed henna orange, often lowered his head and slumped deep into the chair. He occasionally fidgeted with his glasses. His eyes expressed neither the old outrage nor the amusement of his last court appearance here four years ago.

Two other defendants abruptly leapt to their feet at one point, but only to stand, kneel and lie on the gray carpeting in prayer.

One defendant, the alleged head of the terrorist cell for three of the four September 11 pilots, nonchalantly flipped through the Economist magazine. Another feigned sleep.

That behavior angered the Russells, as it did many of the onlookers.

“They kept turning around to look at us and wave,” Christine said. “Their arrogant smirks were annoying, but we knew what they were up to. They were making a mockery of the whole thing. To them, it was a game.”

Chris was particularly incensed by an American female defense attorney who showed up in Muslim garb and chided the female military officers on the board for not “dressing appropriately and respecting the Muslim defendants.”

“I did not have good feeling for her,” Chris said with some restraint.

The arraignment was expected to draw bombastic pleas of guilty or not guilty from the top Al Qaeda operatives known as the Gitmo 5.

But when Judge James Pohl asked each of the men how he pleaded, none of them spoke. Instead, their attorneys said the men were deferring their pleas.

The charges include conspiracy, murder, aircraft hijacking and terrorism. The charge sheet is 87 pages long and includes the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of September 11, 2001. When defense lawyers said two of the detainees wanted the charge sheet read aloud in court, the judge said that was their right. For the next several hours, late into the night, it was read both in English and Arabic, a paragraph at a time. The hearing finally ended more than 13 hours after it began.

Both Cliff and Chris said they were treated like royalty while they were on the island.

“We had a tour of the island that included a long-distance look at the prison where the defendants are being held,” Cliff said. “We had long discussions with the prosecutors and others involved with the case. We learned that the family members are in good hands with the prosecution team. They are extremely competent.”

Pohl scheduled a motions hearing for June 12 to begin sorting out what evidence and testimony will be allowed in the trial. He discussed a tentative trial date in May 2013.

Christine and Cliff hope they will be back in Gitmo for the trial.

“I want them to get what they are supposed to get, and that is the death sentence,” Cliff said. “They’ll never get out of there alive. I am sure of that.”

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