It was a closed-door Combatant Status Review Tribunal at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a precursor of the pending military commissions there that were convened to justify continued detention of Guantanamo prisoners. Ghailani, who arrived at Guantanamo in September 2006, was one of 558 of the 759 men held there since January 2002 to be put through the CSRT.
Civilian or Military Trials for Guantanamo Detainees?
In admissions that never made their way into his subsequent federal trial, which was limited to 1998 East Africa terrorist attacks, Ghailani admitted later undergoing military training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and meeting al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Ghailani also apologized for the truck bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, but denied knowing in advance what his friends were plotting, even as he assisted them, he claimed, unwittingly.
"Nothing is inconsistent with the defense that he offered at trial," says U.S. Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, Chief Military Counsel for the Military Commissions, who previously represented Ghailani.
The unclassified summary of the first military charges against Ghailani reads like a Cliff Notes version of his federal indictment. The focus was on the August 7, 1998, U.S. embassy truck bombing, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where Ghailani was alleged to have:
1. Purchased the bomb truck, a 1987 used Nissan Atlas refrigeration truck, along with al Qaeda operative Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan.
2. Rode in the bomb utility and scouting vehicle, a Suzuki Samarai jeep that tested positive for TNT residue and was found parked outside Ghailani's house.
3. Supplied TNT.
4. Supplied detonators.
5. Brought TNT, detonators, and gas cylinders to the house the Tanzania bombers rented in Dar es Salaam and participated in the bomb's assembly.
6. Obtained a mobile phone used by al Qaeda's East Africa cell.
During the secret March 17, 2007, hearing at Guantanamo, Ghailani in his own words--written and oral--denied most of the accusations. As a Tanzanian, Ghailani's native tongue is Swahili, but he speaks English well as a result of his six years in American custody, and spoke English in the 2007 proceeding, according to the unclassified transcript eventually released by the Defense Department.
Ghailani's first set of comments came from his written statement read by his representative, who was not an attorney.
Ghailani denied buying the Tanzania bomb truck. "When Sheikh Swedan bought the truck, I was present, but I was not the one who bought it," his statement said. He said Swedan told him it was needed to transport goods from Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya.
"Maybe I rode in the scouting vehicle at some point, but never to scout the site of the explosion. I never rode in the vehicle that exploded," his statement continued.
Ghailani's representative said an al Qaeda lieutenant, Fahad Mohammed Ally Msalam, dispatched him to Arusha, Tanzania, to pick up the TNT, but Ghalani did not know what the packages were.
"He said it was soap for washing horses. I did not know it was TNT. However, the man who gave it to me told me it was TNT," Ghailani's statement continued, indentifying the seller as "Hussein," who would have been Hussein Abebe, a Tanzanian miner federal prosecutors were later precluded from calling as a trial witness, because Ghailani revealed his identify while subjected to harsh interrogations in an overseas CIA prison.
Upon his return to Dar es Salaam, Ghailani said he confronted Msalam about the TNT deception.
"Fahad replied that it was for mining diamonds in Somalia and also for a Somali training camp" and that he had deceived Ghailani "because he didn't want me to fear," Ghailani's statement said.
Ghailani admitted transporting what he now knew was TNT and oxygen and acetylene gas tanks to the Dar es Salaam house where truck bomb was built. He said he gave Msalam detonators at a different location.
In the statement, Ghailani denied being a member of al Qaeda.
"I did not know my friends were members of al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization," he said.
As for the Mobitel cell phone in the name of "Ahmed Khalfan," Ghailani said he bought it for an al Qaeda trainer, Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil. Phone records introduced at Ghailani's trial indicated calls made from Tanzania to the Kenya bomb house and to the Hilltop Hotel in Nairobi, where various al Qaeda conspirators stayed.
"Mustafa used the phone and after a few days, he gave it back to me. I kept the phone for a while, but Mustafa kept borrowing it," Ghailani's statement said.
The rest of Ghailani's comments came as verbal responses to tribunal questions.
While he conceded riding in the Suzuki utility and scouting vehicle in Tanzania, Ghailani denied conducting surveillance. "I never go with them to the embassy, you understand. I never go with them," he said.
Ghaliani said he fled East Africa the day before the embassy bombings, for Karachi, Pakistan, at the behest of three senior al Qaeda members on the same flight. "They took me with him," Ghailani told the tribunal.
He made his way to al Qaeda's al Farooq camp outside Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"I wanted to have military training," Ghailani said, "for self defense," citing civil unrest in Tanzania's neighbors - Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo.
He told the tribunal over the course of three months in Afghanistan he learned how to fire a Kalishnikov rifle and to assemble and detonate bombs. He also became a document forger who prepared fake travel documents and passports.
Ghailani said he came to learn about al Qaeda and bin Laden's declaration of war on America.
"After I arrived there in Afghanistan, I came to, but before that, I didn't know," he said.
When asked if he ever met the al Qaeda leader or professed 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Ghailani replied, "In Afghanistan, I met them all."
Ghailani also found out he was a wanted man in Tanzania. "I heard that I was among the wanted people, so I could not go again to my country. So I stay with them," he said.
He stayed until September 2001, "when Americans attack Afghanistan," and then he moved with al Qaeda to Pakistan, Ghailani said. He denied formally joining the group or swearing allegiance to bin Laden.
In his last words at the tribunal, Ghailani apologized for the embassy bombings, while claiming he had not knowingly or willingly joined the conspiracy to kill Americans.
"It was without my knowledge what they were doing, but I helped them. So I apologize to the United States government for what I did. And I'm sorry for what happened to those families who lost, who lost their friends and their beloved ones," he said.
Unlike his civilian trial, Ghailani's abandoned military commission charges included the additional accusation of providing material support to terrorism for allegedly training with al Qaeda, training others in physical fitness, fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, and serving as a cook and bodyguard to bin Laden.
Colwell says it is unknown whether Ghailani's statements in the March 2007 proceeding might have been used against him. "The commissions system, which has been revamped multiple times since their inception, remains untested and so it is really too early to tell," he says.
The commission allegations also went further than the federal indictment in one significant aspect of the embassy bombings - accusing Ghailani of escorting the suicide driver of the Tanzania bomb truck, known to him only as "Ahmad" from Egypt, from Mombasa, Kenya, to Dar es Salaam in July 1998, and later, of escorting the bomb maker, Abdul Rahman al Muhajer, by bus from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, and checking in with him at the Hilltop Hotel, where a number of embassy bombing conspirators met in early August.
Ghailani's military commission at Guantanamo was scheduled for October 2009, but four months earlier the Obama Administration transferred him to New York into Justice Department custody.