Workers stand on what remains of a building in front of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya after the deadly 1998 bomb attack
Thomas Coex  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Workers stand on what remains of a building in front of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya after the deadly 1998 bomb attack.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/17/2010 8:34:55 PM ET 2010-11-18T01:34:55

The first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial was acquitted Wednesday of all but one of the hundreds of 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 to destroy U.S. property and acquitted him on more than 280 other counts, including one murder count for each of the 224 people killed in the embassy bombings. The anonymous jurors deliberated over seven days.

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Prosecutors said Ghailani faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.

The verdict was seen as setback to President Barack's Obama plans for trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than military tribunals.

Ghailani, 36, rubbed his face, smiled and hugged his lawyers after the jury left the courtroom.

Terrorist or errand boy?
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.

Image: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an Al-Qaeda suspect from Tanzania
Fbi  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani

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.

Obama has vowed to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay amid international condemnation of the treatment of detainees, but he has run into political resistance at home.

His administration has adopted what it calls a flexible approach in dealing with terrorism suspects, favoring military tribunals in some cases and civilian trials in others.

Most Republicans say all terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the option to use civilian criminal courts.

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.

'Giant witness' denied
Prosecutors told the judge the witness, Hussein Abebe, would have testified that he sold Ghailani large amounts of TNT used to blow up the embassy in Tanzania, the New York Times reported. The proscution referred to the Abebe as "a giant witness for the government."

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 12 Americans.

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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 a killer'
"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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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