Gitmo prisoner charged in embassy attack

March 31, 2008 12:50:08 PM PDT
A Guantanamo detainee who allegedly helped plan the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania that killed 11 people was charged Monday with war crimes that carry a possible death penalty. Ahmed Kalfan Ghailani - who was held in secret CIA custody before being transferred in 2006 to the U.S. military prison in Cuba - also allegedly purchased and transported the explosives used in the attack and scouted the embassy with a suicide bomber.

Al-Qaida's twin suicide truck-bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998, killed more than 220 people, including 12 Americans, and injured more than 4,000. No Americans died in the attack in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann told a Washington news conference that Ghailani, a Tanzanian, faces charges that include murder, attacking civilians and terrorism. The attack on the embassy in Tanzania was not as devastating as the one in Kenya because an embassy water tanker apparently prevented the suicide bomber from penetrating the perimeter.

Ghailani, who was captured after a gunbattle in Gujrat in eastern Pakistan in July 2004, told a military panel at Guantanamo in March 2007 that he unwittingly delivered the explosives for the attack, didn't know about it beforehand and was sorry.

"It was without my knowledge what they were doing, but I helped them," he told the panel, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon. "So I apologize to the United States government for what I did. And I'm sorry for what happened to those families who lost, who lost their friends and their beloved ones."

U.S. authorities allege in military documents that Ghailani was a personal bodyguard and cook to Osama bin Laden from 2000-2001 and an al-Qaida document forger from 2001-2005.

He was indicted on Dec. 16, 1998, in the Southern District of New York for his alleged role in the embassy bombings, and detainee advocates said Monday the case should remain in a civilian court rather than be tried before a Guantanamo tribunal.

"The only reason the government is now militarizing these criminal acts is to hide what the CIA is doing in its interrogation program behind the secrecy of the commissions, which can allow the use of secret evidence as well as evidence obtained through torture," the New York-based Center for Constitution Rights said.

A senior Pentagon legal official, Susan Crawford, must review and approve the filed charges before any legal proceedings can begin against Ghailani.

The U.S. has so far filed charges against 15 prisoners at Guantanamo and convicted one, Australian David Hicks, in a March 2007 plea bargain. Several detainees have appeared before the tribunal for arraignments or pretrial hearings. The first actual trials are expected to begin in late spring or early summer.

The U.S. now holds about 275 men at Guantanamo and military officials say they expect to file war crimes charges against about 80.