NEW YORK — A man accused of helping to build a truck bomb used in a 1998 terror attack on a U.S. embassy in Africa was a member of an al-Qaida cell that was determined to kill Americans, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday at the start of trial.
Prosecutor Nicholas Lewin said that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani — the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to face a civilian trial — bought the truck and gas tanks that were used in the bombing in Tanzania.
“The defendant did all of this … because he was committed to al-Qaida’s overriding goal: killing Americans,” he said.
The prosecutor told jurors they would hear testimony from a former al-Qaida “insider” who has pleaded guilty. Some of the bombings’ survivors also will take the witness stand, he said.
After Ghailani fled to Pakistan, he “never dreamed that one day he would face all these witnesses … here in an American courtroom,” Lewin said.
Defense attorney Steve Zissou described Ghailani as an unwitting “dupe” for al-Qaida. His client, he said, “ran errands” for longtime friends he believed were legitimate businessmen — not terrorists.
Unlike others involved in the plot, Ghailani “did not go to training camps. He did not get indoctrinated,” the lawyer said. “It is not his hatred. He is neither a member of al-Qaida nor did he share its goals.”
Prosecutors have accused Ghailani of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to bin Laden. He has denied knowing that the materials he delivered would be used to make a bomb.
Ghailani, 36, faces a life sentence in prison if he is convicted of conspiring with others, including Osama bin Laden, to simultaneously blow up embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Among the 224 victims were 12 Americans.
Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 before being held in Guantanamo.
Prosecutors were going forward without their top witness after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled against the government last week. The judge found that the man’s testimony that he sold explosives to Ghailani must be excluded from the trial because the government only learned about him after Ghailani was interrogated at a secret overseas CIA camp where harsh interrogations occurred.
The Ghailani trial is the second trial in Manhattan to stem from the embassy bombings. Four men convicted at a 2001 trial are serving life sentences.