MANHATTAN (CN) – A former al-Qaida trainer testified Tuesday in the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court. L’Houssaine Kherchtou recounted his nearly five years with the terrorist group: from his time in training camps, his initiation oath to Osama bin Laden and battles with the Communist Party in the Afghan Civil War. He added that his cooperation agreement with the U.S. government, allowing him and his wife and children to live in the United States through the witness protection program, obligated him to testify in this and other terrorism trials.
Kherchtou’s direct examination was interrupted by the closing of the court’s day – and it did not appear, so far, to relate directly to Ghailani, who is accused of conspiring and participating in the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people. But Kherchtou’s account gave a detailed portrait of his experiences rising in the ranks of al-Qaida.
Born in Morocco, Kherchtou, 46, moved to France in 1989.
“Like all immigrants, I was looking for a better future for myself,” he said.
In France, without documents, he took a job as a waiter, then moved to Milan, Italy to work for a cleaning company.
He joined the mujahedeen in 1991 during the civil war in Afghanistan to “fight the Communist government,” he said. “I wanted to help.”
Asked by prosecutor Harry Chernoff if he expected to fight, he replied, “Yes, I did.”
Kherchtou said he flew from Italy to Karachi, Pakistan with three other people, including Abu Ubaidah al-Masry, who was later killed in Chechnya. His crew traveled with tablighi, Muslim missionaries attending a yearly meeting.
After his plane landed, they traveled to Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border, where he stayed at the Beit al Ansur guest house.
Chernoff clarified that a guest house is for aspiring al-Qaida recruits, “not open to normal tourists.”
Kherchtou’s party handed over their passports, money and valuables before being taken by van across an open border to attend training in the Afghan city of Khost.
“We had just tents and a building,” Kherchtou said. He described his military and physical training, learning how to operate “small weapons” such as AK-47s in the first phrase, then moving on to mortars, RPG-7s, and antitank and antiaircraft weapons.
When he returned to Peshawar, he stayed at a different guest house, the Beit al Salaam, reserved for al-Qaida members.
Then he moved to a guest house in Miran Shah, Pakistan, where he and his friend, al-Masry, were told they “were good in training and good students.”
Kherchtou said he made a bayat, or oath, to Osama bin Laden, agreeing that “whatever he tells us is according to the religion.”
He assumed multiple aliases, such as Abu Zaid al Magrebi.
Kherchtou said the most al-Qaida members did not know his real name, and he did not know most of theirs.
He was later sent to another camp, Abubakar Sadiq, for 2 months, to learn how to train other members.
Kherchtou said his first brush with real fighting came when he and the other new recruits “were firing weapons from a distance” until Khost fell to the mujahedeen.
Afghanistan’s communist government collapsed in 1992. Kherchtou said he “parted ways” with bin Laden’s group sometime in 1995 and 1996.
His testimony is to continue today (Wednesday).