MANHATTAN (CN) – Prosecutors on Monday exhibited scorched and rusted metal that had been welded inside the Nissan truck used in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, during the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court. “Welding is like handwriting,” said witness Julius Kisingo Kemo, as he identified the damaged strips of metal that he once crafted. “You always recognize your own work.”
The beams were recovered from the truck that exploded in front of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, one of two targets of a coordinated attack by al Qaeda on Aug. 7, 1998. The other attack hit Nairobi, Kenya the same day. More than 200 people died in the attacks.
Federal prosecutors accuse Ghailani of conspiring in both bombings: buying a Nissan Atlas truck and helping to load it with boxes of TNT, batteries, detonators, fertilizer and sandbags.
Kemo, a welder who outfitted the inside of the truck, says he never knew the vehicle would be used for terrorism, and he never met Ghailani. Kemo said he dealt only with a man named “Sheikh,” who prosecutors say was Ghailani’s associate.
The government contends that man was Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, who reportedly was killed in a drone attack last year.
Kemo, of Tanzania, explained through a Swahili interpreter that he knew from Sheikh’s appearance and accent that he was not from Dar es Salaam. Sheikh had “hair like a Somalian,” parted in several directions, Kemo said.
Though both men were fluent in Swahili, Kemo said Sheikh greeted him in Arabic with “salaam alaikum.” He said Sheikh had a warm, fawning politeness that reminded him of cultural attitudes in Pemba, an island of the Zanzibar archipelago, and of the Tonga people who border Zimbabwe.
In fact, Swedan was born in Kenya, one of the targets of the al Qaeda bombing.
Kemo said Sheikh told him he wanted holes drilled through the truck in order to install shelves to separate different types of fish and squid he was transporting.
“As a workman, I told him it didn’t make sense because the holes would let in air” and ruin the refrigeration, Kemo said. But he says Sheikh insisted that he should “just go ahead and drill the holes. I can put caulking on the outside.”
Kemo said Sheikh insisted that he would patch the holes himself, that Kemo should concentrate only on the drilling. “Don’t worry about the price,” Swedan said, continually urging him to “hurry up, my sheikh,” his nickname for Kemo.
Whenever Kemo suggested a different way to install the compartments, Sheikh replied, “Don’t worry, my sheikh. You do good work, and I’ll buy you more work.” But after the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania was bombed, Kemo said he never saw Sheikh again.
Kemo said the next time he saw his handiwork was after the FBI interviewed him at Dar es Salaam’s Sea Cliff Hotel. During that meeting, the metallic bars that the agents showed him from the wreckage looked rusted and old, though they were “brand new” when he installed them, Kemo said.
Prosecutors believe the same man bought a pair of oversize batteries to use with the explosives.
Although witness Charles John Temba could not remember his customer’s appearance, he said a man walked into his store, Chloride Exide, asking for the “biggest size batteries we had in the shop.”
That man, believed to be Swedan, bought two N150 batteries, significantly larger than the N70 batteries needed to operate his truck, Temba said.
Prosecutors believe Swedan wrote a false name, “Ahmed Ally,” on the receipt and listed a P.O. Box as his address to avoid detection.
Although Temba told FBI agents he gave the man a discount because he was a “serious customer,” he said on the witness stand that he reduced the price in return for a same-day cash payment.
Neither witness identified or recalled meeting Ghailani.
Ghailani faces 286 terrorism-related charges, including murder and conspiracy. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan noted last week that Ghailani could be held indefinitely as an enemy combatant even if he is acquitted.