NEW YORK CITY — The first Guantanamo detainee to be convicted in a civilian court is an “evil” force who helped al-Qaida members bomb two U.S. embassies in 1998, boosting the profile of Osama bin Laden and enabling terrorists to carry out other acts of destruction, federal prosecutors in New York say.
In seeking a life sentence for Ahmed Ghailani at a sentencing next week, prosecutors urged a federal judge to consider how the Tanzanian left a middle class life with a loving family to join hands with terrorists who were determined to carry out a mass killing. The twin bombings in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
“The defendant traded away everything in his life. His family, his friends, his job, his country, his name — all for a chance to kill as many people as possible,” the prosecutors wrote in a submission late Friday. “This was an appalling choice to make. The man who would make it is evil.”
Ghailani, 36, was convicted in the fall of a single count of conspiring to destroy government buildings and was acquitted of 280 charges that he took part in the al-Qaida bombings. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 25. Prosecutors had decided previously against seeking the death penalty.
Defense lawyers have asked for leniency, saying Ghailani did not know that purchases of explosives he made were destined for criminal purposes. A defense lawyer for Ghailani did not immediately return a telephone message Monday.
The government said bin Laden’s “was a more lonely voice” in 1998, though his words seeking to kill Americans wherever they were found were “wild and blood-thirsty.” Still, prosecutors said, his “influence was narrower.”
Before the embassy bombings, they wrote, “it took a kind of visionary immorality to throw in one’s lot with bin Laden. But that is what the defendant did.”
They said Ghailani was one of al-Qaida’s new recruits when he bought explosives and a truck to aid the attacks.
“In doing so, the defendant not only devastated thousands of families — he helped to force open the gate, that others have now walked through, to terror and to murder on a massive scale,” prosecutors said.
As part of their submission, prosecutors included notes from an FBI interview conducted after Ghailani’s 2004 arrest in which Ghailani conceded that he was told there would be a bombing.
In the interview, Ghailani is quoted as saying that he was told an embassy would be bombed about a week before it occurred.
The remarks are similar though less detailed than remarks he made during a January 2007 interview with the FBI that was put in the public record last April. In that interview, Ghailani was quoted as saying he realized a bombing was planned when he was asked by a colleague to drive by the embassy in Dar es Salaam on the way to a bus station. He was quoted as saying he was later told that the man who would drive the truck carrying explosives would die in the attack.
Prosecutors said in their court filing Friday that they did not offer the FBI statements at Ghailani’s trial because he had not been read his rights and had not been provided with an attorney before they were made.
A pre-sentence submission by Ghailani’s lawyers has not yet been put in the court record.
Prosecutors reference it, though, saying Ghailani maintains that when he arrived in Pakistan a day before the bombings, he saw his friends “cheering,” learned of the scope of the conspiracy and “felt devastated.”
He said he then followed the others to Afghanistan and merely “did the tasks assigned to him,” the government said. Prosecutors say that in subsequent years, he fought on al-Qaida’s front lines, received explosives training, became an al-Qaida trainer, worked as a bodyguard and cook for bin Laden and became an expert document forger.
“A man who has just been tricked by his terrorist friends into committing mass murder would not then opt to follow those same friends further into the embrace of al-Qaida,” prosecutors wrote. “Even if it were true, being ‘stranded in a strange land’ is a horribly flimsy excuse for throwing in one’s lot with terrorists who have only just consummated an appalling act of mass murder.”