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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Forensics Expert Grilled in Terror Trial

MANHATTAN (CN) - A forensics expert testified that 1,000 pounds of explosives went into the truck bomb that ripped open the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania in 1998. But though his FBI unit recovered thousands of pieces of evidence and chemical residue specimens, the witness said he could not recall lifting a single fingerprint connecting Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to the bombing he is accused of helping to plan and execute.

During cross-examination in the first civilian trial of a Guantanamo detainee, Ghailani's attorney suggested that the forensics expert's testimony contradicted the accounts from several other government witnesses.

Ghailani is accused of coordinating and assisting al-Qaida in carrying out the attacks on U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998, killing 212 people.

Prosecution witness Leo West, the forensics expert, illuminated the dimensions of the Tanzanian attack, which he said tore through 5 inches of asphalt, left a 3-foot crater in the ground, and sprayed blood and human tissues onto the Embassy wall 50 feet away from where the truck was parked.

West was shown the blackened, perforated and twisted fragment from the Embassy's northern gate, which he said was found 1,200 feet away from the bomb crater.

In working for the FBI from 1983 to 2004, West said, he investigated more than 150 crime scenes, including the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He is a co-author of "Guide to Conducting Crime Scene Investigations," a field guide.

On Aug. 8, 1998, West boarded an Air Force jet that landed late the next morning in Dar es Salaam. His Evidence Response Team hurried to the Embassy to collect evidence before the sun set. He said there were "only a few hours of daylight left," and he wanted to collect residue that could be lost in rain or other environmental exposure.

The samples his unit sent for analysis tested positive for TNT, and chards of metal recovered from the site had evidence of other chemicals used in the deadly brew. One piece of metal had the clipped-off word "CETYLE," presumed to be acetylene, and another read "OXYGEN." The combination of the two chemicals "enhances" an explosion by increasing fragmentation, West said.

West was also able to identify the Nissan Atlas truck used in the bombing, which still had its model and serial numbers intact.

He was asked to step down from the stand to inspect its remains, which he described as a "drastically deformed" cab and rear axles that were "flattened out," "torn apart" and punctuated with "knife-like edges."

But despite his years of detailed and copious evidence-collecting and analysis, West acknowledged under cross-examination that he could not recall finding Ghailani's fingerprints, though prints "can survive a bomb blast in some instances."

After explaining that TNT residue can be transferred by hand contact with clothing, defense attorney Steve Zissou theatrically rubbed the shoulders of his co-counsels and asked if they could all be implicated in a "criminal conspiracy" if one of them had chemical contamination.

The prosecutors objected to the leading question, and Judge Kaplan sustained.

Although other witnesses testified to the use of large N150 batteries in the explosion, Zissou got West to admit that nothing recovered from the crime scene indicates that batteries were involved in the explosive device.

Also on Tuesday, another eyewitness, Amina Bakary, said that she lived two houses away from where the truck used in the bombing was parked. On the morning of the attack, she said, the drivers slammed on the brakes 2 feet away from where she stood. The doors swung open, she said, and she saw two cylinders and a box stored inside, until one of the passengers closed the door again.

Under cross-examination, Bakary acknowledged that she did not tell the FBI about what she saw in an interview 3 months later.

West testified that the truck was loaded with "at least 20 different cylinders," not two.

Ghailani faces life imprisonment if convicted, and is subject to indefinite detention as an enemy combatant even if he is acquitted.

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