Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- A former al-Qaeda instructor who trained recruits in munitions, bomb-making and anti-aircraft weapons took the stand against Ahmed Ghailani, who’s accused of helping the terrorist group attack two U.S. embassies in Africa.
L’Houssaine Kherchtou, 46, a Moroccan who is now a cooperating witness for the U.S., testified he was a waiter in Italy when he decided in 1991 to travel to Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen. After successfully completing his training, Kherchtou said he was recruited, took an oath and became a sworn member of al-Qaeda, he said.
Ghailani, 36, a Tanzanian, is charged with participating in a global conspiracy with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that includes the near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 that killed 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens. Prosecutors allege that Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be prosecuted in a U.S. civilian court, helped buy the truck used to deliver the bomb in the Tanzania attack.
“There was military training, physical training,” said Kherchtou, who testified for about an hour before court ended for the day. “The first phase was training in AK-47s, M-16s, Uzis, then we moved on to small weaponry such as antitank weapons, RPGs and the third phase was mortars and anti-aircraft weapons and howitzers. We also learned about mines and grenades.”
Kherchtou, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and now lives in the U.S., said he was first a trainer at the al Siddiq terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and in 1993, he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he trained to become a pilot. He said he broke with bin Laden and the group in “late 1995 or early 1996.”
U.S. prosecutors told jurors in opening statements last week that while Kherchtou didn’t know Ghailani in Africa, he could describe how the terrorist group’s cells in Tanzania and Kenya operated. Prosecutors allege that Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was a vital member of the cell which carried out both embassy bombings.
Ghailani has pleaded not guilty to the charges and his lawyers told jurors he was “duped” by al-Qaeda members into helping collect items used in the attack.
Kherchtou said when he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, he acted as a facilitator for other terrorists traveling to participate in the civil war in Somalia. He will return to the witness stand tomorrow when the testimony resumes, prosecutors said.
“I was also helping members of al-Qaeda go back and forth from Kenya to the Sudan and Somalia, just buying them tickets, getting them a hotel,” Kherchtou said.
The U.S. alleges Ghailani fled Africa with a senior al-Qaeda explosives trainer and remained active in the terror group. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in December 1998.
He was captured in Pakistan in July 2004 and held by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency where he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the U.S. has said.
He was taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in September 2006 and transferred to federal court in New York last year, after the Obama administration said it planned to close Guantanamo and try some terrorism suspects held there in civilian courts.
The case is U.S. v. Ghailani, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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