NEW YORK — The first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial was acquitted Wednesday of most charges he helped unleash death and destruction on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 – an opening salvo in al-Qaida’s campaign to kill Americans.
A federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of one count of conspiracy and acquitted him of all other counts, including murder and murder conspiracy, in the embassy bombings. The anonymous federal jury deliberated over seven days, with a juror writing a note to the judge saying she felt threatened by other jurors.
Prosecutors had branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.
The trial at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a possible test case for President Barack Obama administration’s aim of putting other terror detainees – including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – on trial on U.S. soil.
Ghailani’s prosecution also demonstrated some of the constitutional challenges the government would face if that happens. On the eve of his trial last month, the judge barred the government from calling a key witness because the witness had been identified while Ghailani was being held at a secret CIA camp where harsh interrogation techniques were used.
After briefly considering an appeal of that ruling, prosecutors forged ahead with a case honed a decade ago in the prosecution of four other men charged in the same attacks in Tanzania and Kenya. All were convicted in the same courthouse and sentenced to life terms.
Prosecutors had alleged Ghailani helped an al-Qaida cell buy a truck and components for explosives used in a suicide bombing in his native Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. The attack in Dar es Salaam and a nearly simultaneous bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
The day before the bombings, Ghailani boarded a one-way flight to Pakistan under an alias, prosecutors said. While on the run, he spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and later as a document forger for al-Qaida, authorities said.
He was captured in 2004 in Pakistan and held by the CIA at a secret overseas camp. In 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo and held until the decision last year to bring him to New York.
Despite losing its key witness, the government was given broad latitude to reference al-Qaida and bin Laden. It did – again and again.
“This is Ahmed Ghailani. This is al-Qaida. This is a terrorist. This is a killer,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Chernoff said in closing arguments.
The jury heard a former al-Qaida member who has cooperated with the government describe how bin Laden took the group in a more radical direction with a 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, against Americans.
Bin Laden accused the United States of killing innocent women and children in the Middle East and decided “we should do the same,” L’Houssaine Kherchtou said on the witness stand.
A prosecutor read aloud the fatwa, which called on Muslims to rise up and “kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they can find it.”
Other witnesses described how Ghailani bought gas tanks used in the truck bomb with cash supplied by the terror group, how the FBI found a blasting cap stashed in his room at a cell hideout and how he lied to family members about his escape, telling them he was going to Yemen to start a new life.
The defense never contested that Ghailani knew some of the plotters. But it claimed he was in the dark about their sinister intentions.
“Call him a fall guy. Call him a pawn,” lawyer Peter Quijano said in his closing argument. “But don’t call him guilty.”
Quijano argued the investigation in Africa was too chaotic to produce reliable evidence. He said local authorities and the FBI “trampled all over” unsecured crime scenes during searches in Tanzania