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Witnesses Testify in Ghailani Terror Trial

  • Larry Freund

Accused terrorist Ahmed Ghailani in court

Accused terrorist Ahmed Ghailani in court

Several witnesses to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, testified on Wednesday during the trial of one of the accused bombers, Ahmed Ghailani.

U.S. prosecutors continued to lay the groundwork for the case against Ahmed Ghailani, in the first civilian trial of a terrorism suspect once held at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ghailani is charged with conspiring in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

The latest testimony came from two Tanzanians employed as guards around the Dar es Salaam embassy by a private security company as well as from a Tanzanian woman who worked as a political assistant in the embassy and a U.S. Marine guard.

Valentine Matthew Katunda, one of the Tanzanian security guards, testified that on August 7, 1998, he was stationed in a guardhouse in front of the embassy, when he said he heard a loud rumbling, like lightning. Speaking in Swahili through a translator, Katunda said he was thrown to the floor by the explosion and lost consciousness. When he became aware of his surroundings, he said, he discovered himself covered with rubble. He said he was trapped for more than four hours.

Justina Mdobilu, a Tanzanian lawyer who was working in the embassy as a political assistant and translator, told the jury that she was attending a meeting with the embassy's deputy chief of mission, when she saw a flash outside a window. She said the window blew into the room and that she experienced what she called "the loudest noise I heard in my life, so painful it went through my chest and out the back." Mdobilu, who was eight months pregnant at the time, said she was cut and bleeding, but that she was able to leave the embassy building. Her unborn child was not hurt.

U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Brian Johnson, dressed in civilian clothes, testified that on the day of the explosion, he was stationed inside the Dar es Salaam embassy. He said the blast knocked him to the ground. He also said he helped rescue civilians from the embassy.

Ghailani, the accused terrorist, watched the testimony from the defense table, flanked by several of his attorneys. During opening statements to the jury on Tuesday, he was described by one of his lawyers as an innocent dupe of the actual terrorists, and that he ran errands for the bombers without knowing their ultimate purpose.

Prosecutors argue that Ghailani was a vital member of the terrorist group and was committed to al-Qaida's goal of killing Americans. The government says Ghailani bought the truck and gas tanks that were used in the Dar es Salaam bombing.

This first civilian trial of a terrorism suspect once held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center is being watched closely. Presiding federal judge Lewis Kaplan already has ruled that under the U.S. Constitution, a key prosecution witness cannot testify in the trial because it would violate Ghailani's rights. Ghailani was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 and was later moved to the Guantanamo Bay facility.