Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to get a U.S. civilian trial, is a “mass murderer” from an al-Qaeda cell that carried out the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, a federal prosecutor told a jury in closing arguments.
Ghailani, 36, is on trial in New York for the 1998 bombings of embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens. He is accused of taking part of a terrorist conspiracy with Osama bin Laden to kill U.S. nationals and faces as long as life in prison if convicted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Chernoff finished his closing arguments to the jury to a packed courtroom that included about two dozen victims and their relatives.
“This is Ahmed Ghailani,” Chernoff said, pointing to the defendant, who was seated at a nearby table, flanked by three of his four lawyers. “This is al-Qaeda; this is a terrorist; this is a killer.”
Chernoff said the defense’s claim that Ghailani was a dupe of al-Qaeda was refuted by witnesses who described him as helping purchase the truck and the metal tanks used in the Tanzanian blast.
“Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, this man, is a mass murderer,” Chernoff said. “He sat here casually, and he has known what you know now, that Ahmed Ghailani has the blood of hundreds on his hands.”
He also cited testimony from Tanzanian witnesses who described Ghailani as taking an active role leading up to the attacks, repeatedly seeking out sources for the metal tanks, having them filled with acetylene and oxygen, negotiating the price and personally paying for them with cash. Metal fragments from the tanks and the steel used to reinforce the bomb-laden truck were recovered from the site of the attack, the prosecutor said.
Chernoff reminded jurors that Ghailani’s former roommate identified three men who stayed at their home in the months before the attacks that prosecutors said were members of the East African al-Qaeda cell.
‘One of Them’
“These young men wanted to impress their al-Qaeda seniors by launching their most spectacular attacks upon America up to that point,” Chernoff said. “He wasn’t just with them. He was one of them. He wasn’t just along for the ride. He helped build the bomb.”
Testimony began Oct. 12 and ended Nov. 3 before U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. Ghailani’s lawyers are to make their closing arguments to the jury tomorrow. Kaplan has said the panel could begin its deliberations in the case as early as Nov. 10.
Ghailani’s lawyers said in opening statements that he was duped by more worldly friends who fled Africa after the attacks. Defense lawyer Steven Zissou argued that Ghailani’s purchases before the blast, including helping buy the truck and metal canisters, were part of the “normal, totally benign business” common in East Africa.
Zissou described his client as “not really a man, but a boy, more comfortable playing with children and watching cartoons.”
His lawyers didn’t call any witnesses. Instead, they showed jurors a series of documents with facts agreed to by both sides, called stipulations.
One said that during an initial search of Ghailani’s home, on Aug. 26, 1998, Tanzanian authorities found no explosives.
At the trial, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified that, in a second search of Ghailani’s Dar es Salaam home three days after the first, he found a blasting cap in an armoire which the defendant kept padlocked. Blasting caps are used to set off explosives like dynamite, a prosecution witness said.
FBI agents also found traces of the explosives TNT and PETN on clothing recovered from the Dar es Salaam residence, Chernoff said.
The prosecutor also cited travel records found by the FBI show that on Aug. 6, 1998, a day before the blasts, Ghailani left Africa for Pakistan on the same flight as two key al-Qaeda leaders, including one who was a bomb-making expert.
He cited the extreme secrecy under which members of the terror group operated and how informants were executed, including the 14-year-old son of an al-Qaeda leader.
“Do you think that al-Qaeda would bring this outsider with them to Pakistan?” Chernoff said. “Would they allow into their midst a so-called dupe in the so-called military operation?”
Ghailani, he said “is no innocent.”
‘Not a Child’
The prosecutor challenged the defense’s claim that Ghailani, who was 24 at the time of the attacks, was “too young-looking to be a terrorist.” Chernoff said Ghailani was older than at least two of the five members of the al-Qaeda cell that carried out the attacks.
Chernoff said Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-’Owhali, who was convicted in 2001 of being in the truck that delivered the bomb to the Nairobi embassy, was only 21, while Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, who the U.S. said helped assemble bomb-making materials and load the Tanzanian bomb truck, was 22.
“He was not a child, this is not a court of juvenile justice,” Chernoff said.
The prosecutor said al-Qaeda changed its focus to attack the U.S. after the first Persian Gulf War when the U.S. military was stationed in Saudi Arabia. He said that in February 1998, the group’s leader, bin Laden, issued a “fatwah” giving the authorization for members to kill both U.S. civilians and military personnel.
World Trade Center
In one February 1998 statement shown to the jury, bin Laden praised the actions of Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
“America will see many young men that will follow Ramzi Yousef,” bin Laden said in an interview he gave to a U.S. television news interview.
“This plan was already in motion and included Ahmed Ghailani,” Chernoff said. The defendant’s actions are “what Ghailani did to make bin Laden’s wishes come true.”
The defendant went to Afghanistan and worked for several top al-Qaeda terrorists, serving as a cook and bodyguard in Afghanistan for bin Laden, the U.S. said.
The jury hasn’t heard details of what happened to him after he left Africa.
He was indicted in December 1998. He was captured in Pakistan in July 2004 and held by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He was questioned and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the U.S. said in court papers.
In September 2006, he was transferred to the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay. He was transferred to New York last year for trial.
The case is U.S. v. Ghailani, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).