A jury in federal court in Manhattan convicted Ahmed Ghalfan Ghailani Wednesday of conspiring in the 1998 destruction of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Many, however, are focusing on Ghailani's acquittal on 224 counts of murder and attempted murder; and asking what effect, if any, it should have on the location of future trials for al-Qaida terrorists.
Ghailani was indicted on December 16, 1998 for conspiring with Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida to carry out the twin bombings in Africa on August 7, 1998. The attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Suicide bombers driving large truck bombs packed with approximately 1,000 pounds of TNT attacked each embassy. Ghailani purchased the truck as well as tanks of oxygen and acetylene gas that were used in the bombing.
In 2004, Ghailani was captured in Pakistan and sent to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Defense attorneys argued that Ghailani spent five years in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency which reportedly tortured him. U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan disallowed government prosecutors from introducing evidence or witnesses that were obtained during the alleged torture.
While U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara would presumably have preferred guilty counts on all charges, Ghailani's defense attorneys praised the result. "This verdict is a reaffirmation that this nation's judicial system is the greatest ever devised," said Peter E. Quijano. "It is truly a system of laws and not men, where, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, this jury acquitted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of 284 out of 285 counts."
Discussing the political implications of the verdict, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, explain "the only thing that will matter in the political sphere will be that prosecutors won a conviction on only one of 285 criminal counts—that they came within a hair's breadth of losing the case entirely."
Indeed, the verdict already is being used to highlight the insufficiency of civilian trials for suspected al Qaida terrorists. U.S. Representative Pete King, R-NY, who is promising to hold hearings on the issue, attacked the verdict as a "total miscarriage of justice" and said it demonstrates the "absolute insanity of the Obama Administration's decision to try al-Qaida terrorists in civilian courts."
What effect the verdict will have on the Obama Administration's efforts to prosecute al-Qaida militants remains to be seen. Of particular interest will be whether the result will make the administration gun-shy to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in civilian court. Last week Attorney General Eric Holder said the government is "close to a decision on the venue for the prosecution" of the self-described mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
Ghailani is scheduled to be sentenced on January 25 and faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. U.S. Attorney Bharara has promises that "he will face, and we will seek, the maximum sentence of life without parole when he is sentenced."