Al Qaeda Associate Gets Life for U.S. Embassy Bombings in Kenya, Tanzania

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee tried in U.S. civilian court, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

Ghailani, 36, a Tanzanian citizen, was convicted Nov. 17 by a federal jury in New York of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. buildings and cleared of 284 other charges stemming from the Aug. 7, 1998, attacks on the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York.

Ghailani’s lawyers asked the judge to impose less than a life term. He rejected the request, today calling the attacks “cold-blooded killing and maiming.”

“A sentence must be imposed that makes it crystal clear that others engaged or contemplating engaging in deadly acts of terrorism risk enormously serious consequences,” Kaplan told Ghailani, who stood flanked by his six lawyers.

“I am not persuaded that Mr. Ghailani is the harmless, innocent person that has been put forward -- not at all,” Kaplan said as Ghailani dropped his head and stared at the defense table. “The sentence imposed means that he never again has the opportunity to do what he has done,” the judge said.

The near-simultaneous bombings killed 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens. More than 4,500 people were injured. The crime for which Ghailani was found guilty carries a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. He would have faced a mandatory life sentence if he were convicted of any of the 224 murder counts.

Prosecutors’ Stance

Prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara argued today that Ghailani deserved a life term because the evidence shows he participated in a worldwide terrorist conspiracy with Osama bin Laden to kill U.S. nationals using weapons of mass destruction.

“Justice was served,” Bharara said in a statement. “Ahmed Ghailani is a remorseless terrorist, mass murderer, and an al-Qaeda operative and now he will spend the rest of his life in prison,” he said.

“Ghailani was a vital member of the East African terror cell that murdered 224 innocent people and wounded thousands of others.”

Before he imposed sentence, Kaplan heard from 11 victims of the bombings or their relatives who described the impact the attacks had on their lives.

Truck Purchase

The U.S. said that while Ghailani didn’t drive, evidence presented at the trial showed he helped buy the refrigeration truck that ferried the bomb to the Tanzania embassy attack. Witnesses said he also helped purchase metal oxygen and acetylene tanks that the government said were used to enhance the explosive power of the bomb.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation agent testified he found an explosives detonator in a locked cabinet in Ghailani’s bedroom after the attacks, and that the armoire was covered with residue from the explosive PETN, which experts said indicated a large number of blasting caps had once been stored there.

On Jan. 21, Kaplan rejected Ghailani’s bid to cancel the sole conviction because of what defense lawyers argued was an “inconsistent” verdict.

Ghailani’s lawyers argued he should get leniency because of the “wealth and depth of the national security intelligence” he provided. They claimed he was tortured when in the custody of the U.S. Defense Department.

Defense Arguments

Defense lawyers also argued that Ghailani didn’t know that a bombing was planned until after the attacks. They said he unwittingly helped collect materials used in the Tanzania attack and didn’t know the full extent of the plot until after he flew with them to Pakistan a day before the bombings.

“Because he was envious of their savoir faire, he responded with happiness when they suggested that one day he could accompany them on a trip to Pakistan,” his lawyer, Peter Quijano, said in a Jan. 7 court filing.

“These friends inveigled Ahmed into performing acts which he later realized had helped accomplish their heinous plot,” Quijano wrote.

Kaplan rejected defense arguments that Ghailani should get a reduced sentence because he provided information to the U.S. and because of the harsh treatment he received while in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Whatever Mr. Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA,” he said “the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror that he and his confederates caused.”

‘Al-Qaeda Operative’

Kaplan said that while there is no evidence that Ghailani took an oath to join the terror group, “it is abundantly clear that Mr. Ghailani worked together with al-Qaeda and its associates” to blow up the embassies. “He was an al-Qaeda operative,” the judge said.

“It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale,” Kaplan said. “The purpose of this crime was to create terror and death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine when it occurred in 1998.”

In his Jan. 21 ruling rejecting Ghailani’s bid to overturn the conviction, the judge said the evidence showed he had a personal relationship with five key al-Qaeda operatives, including two who were convicted of the bombing plot in a 2001 trial in federal court in New York.

Kaplan also said in his ruling that witnesses testified a key leader of the terrorist group’s East Africa cell, Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil, stayed in the same room with Ghailani in the months leading up to the attacks.

Mistrust of Outsiders

A former al-Qaeda trainer, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, testified for the government that the terrorists were secretive and rarely trusted outsiders with critical roles such as the one Ghailani played, Kaplan said. The judge said the jury was entitled to conclude that only a “committed operative” would have been included in such plans.

Ghailani, who was captured in Pakistan in July 2004, was held and questioned by the CIA for more than two years, the U.S. has said in court papers. In September 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay by the Department of Defense. In June 2009, the U.S. transferred him to federal court in New York for trial.

Travel records show that Ghailani left Africa for Pakistan the day before the blasts, on the same flight as two key al- Qaeda leaders, including a bomb-making expert, Kaplan said.

He later admitted that he worked for several top al-Qaeda terrorists and served as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has said. The jury only heard about Ghailani’s arrest in Pakistan and never heard details of his activities with al-Qaeda after the attacks.

During a 2001 trial in federal court in New York, four co- defendants of Ghailani were convicted of all charges, including joining an al-Qaeda conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and all 224 counts of murder.

The case is U.S. v. Ghailani, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Patricia Hurtado in New York at pathurtado@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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