A New York jury delivered a stunning verdict Wednesday. Ahmed Ghailani, an al Qaeda terrorist who conspired to blow up American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, was acquitted of more than 280 charges, including one count of murder for each of the 224 people killed in the simultaneous attacks. The jury found Ghailani guilty of only one charge: conspiracy to destroy U.S. government buildings.
The Department of Justice, which moved Ghailani from Guantanamo to New York for the trial, says it is “pleased” with the outcome since Ghailani will face a minimum of 20 years in prison and possibly serve a life sentence.
It is difficult to square the DOJ’s rhetoric with the carnage that was unleashed in Africa more than a decade ago. The man who helped murder more than 200 civilians was acquitted of their murders even though he is obviously guilty.
Let’s review some of the evidence presented at Ghailani’s trial. According to CBS News, government prosecutors presented all of the following facts to the jury:
1. Ghailani and another al Qaeda operative “purchased the used refrigeration truck converted to a weapon of mass destruction in Tanzania.”
2. “Ghailani then obtained some of the oxygen and flammable acetylene gas tanks joined to the TNT to enhance the explosion.”
3. “Ghailani also stored electric detonators - one and a half inch, aluminum coated, PETN charged blasting caps -- in the armoire of his Dar es Salaam house. The FBI found one, along with clothing tainted with TNT residue.”
4. Ghailani gave the suicide bomber who blew himself up in Tanzania the cell phone he used in plotting the attack. The suicide bomber made calls from this phone both the night before, and the morning of, the attack.
5. The government produced “numerous witnesses” who “placed Ghailani in 1998 in the company of known al Qaeda operatives and embassy bombers, at [a] ‘safe house’ in coastal Mombasa, Kenya, at the house Ghailani shared in Dar es Salaam, and riding in utility vehicles the conspirators used to ferry supplies to their bomb making locations.
CBS News explains that two of the men “seen with Ghailani” have already been convicted for their role in the embassy bombings and are “serving life sentences.”
6. “Ghailani fled Tanzania using a fake name and passport the day before the bombings” and “three senior al Qaeda leaders involved with the East Africa's cell were on Ghailani's flight to Karachi, Pakistan."
It is a mystery how the jury could find that these facts failed to add up to a guilty verdict on all of the murder counts. How can a terrorist be guilty of conspiring to blow up two buildings, but then be found not guilty of the ensuing deaths?
The verdict doesn’t make any logical sense even if there is a lawyerly explanation. (One juror reportedly held out, disagreeing with the other 11 jurors until a verdict was finally reached. It may be the case that the jurors could only agree on a compromise.)
The evidence outlined above is consistent with that which was presented during Ghailani’s combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo – with one noteworthy exception. Ghailani purchased some of the TNT used in the attacks, but the judge in this case barred the witness who sold the TNT to him. During his CSRT, Ghailani came up with the unconvincing excuse that when he purchased the TNT he thought he was really purchasing “soap for washing horses.”
It does not appear that the jury ever heard this absurd excuse because Judge Kaplan barred the TNT seller from testifying. Ghailani’s lawyers used equally lame excuses in their attempt to explain away the other damning evidence. They portrayed Ghailani as a “dupe” and “naïve” innocent who just happened to take part in al Qaeda’s most successful attack prior to September 11.
Instead of dispensing with Ghailani’s unconvincing story once and for all, the jury waffled. Thus, a terrorist who helped kill 224 people was found “not guilty” of their murders.
No one should be “pleased” with that verdict, even if Ghailani will likely serve many years in prison.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.