Baby-faced and slightly built, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani didn’t present a physical threat, but his knowledge of explosives and commitment to radical Islam made the Tanzanian one of the most sought-after terrorists in the world with a $25 million price on his head.
Arrested in Pakistan after a fierce gunfight, Ghailani had spent six years underground, evading an FBI-led manhunt and avoiding capture despite the bounty and a prominent listing among America’s 22 most wanted terrorists.
Ghailani is believed to have been born in early 1974 on Zanzibar, a semiautonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. Despite being located only 25 miles off the African coast, the islands were once the seat of the Sultanate of Oman and remain 95 percent Muslim and the people and cities look more Arab in appearance than African.
Dedication to Islam
But during his childhood, Tanzania — and by extension Zanzibar — was ruled by a secular, socialist government made up mostly of mainland Christians, and devout Muslims were treated with suspicion.
While in his late twenties, Ghailani dedicated himself to Islam and became a tabligh, or missionary. While most tabligh practice moderate Islam, a growing minority travel the world, visiting mosques and preaching the hatred of Western culture that is the hallmark of radical Islam.
Little is known about Ghailani during this period in his life, but most tabligh at some point visit Pakistan for theological training. Once there, some of the more extreme Muslims — like American John Walker Lindh who fought with the Taliban — were recruited to attend al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.
By the time he joined the al-Qaida cell in East Africa, the 5-foot-3 inch, 150-pound young man had already acquired the skills and philosophy to carry out a terrorist attack.
‘Friend of al-Qaida’
Known among his al-Qaida peers as Ahmed the Tanzanian, he was introduced to new recruits as “a friend of al-Qaida,” convicted bomber Mohammed Sadiq Odeh told the FBI, according to an official transcript. He was a key member of the cell assigned to attack the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a bombing that killed 12 people, all Africans, and injured 85 others.
Ghailani was responsible for obtaining the parts needed to construct the bomb, including the steel cylinders, TNT and detonators, another convicted bomber, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, reportedly told the FBI.
Mohamed said that Ghailani didn’t know how to drive a car, so he would ride his bicycle around Dar es Salaam and then get another al-Qaida member, who could drive, to bring a sports utility vehicle to pick up purchases too large for him to carry.
Last seen in Karachi
Ghailani joined the rest of the East Africa al-Qaida cell ringleaders in Nairobi on Aug. 6, 1998 and flew to Karachi on a Kenyan Airways flight before the bombs even exploded, Odeh said, according to the FBI transcript. Until his arrest, that was the last known sighting of Ghailani.
By the time Ghailani was arrested Sunday in the eastern city of Gujrat along with at least 15 other people, he seemed to have sunk family roots inside Pakistan.
Ghailani’s wife, an Uzbek woman, was also arrested, along with several of his children, according to Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, who is in charge of coordinating Pakistan’s counterterrorism effort.
Like Ghailani, many Uzbek opposition figures fled into Afghanistan and then into Pakistan, where they get training and mingle with like-minded al-Qaida and other militants.