MANHATTAN (CN) – A tearful government witness said he was chosen to be trained as Osama bin Laden’s personal pilot, until al-Qaida’s coffers “dried up” during an economic slump. “[Al-Qaida] took me to bin Laden himself,” L’Houssaine Kherchtou said, adding that when he asked for money to renew his pilot license he was told, “You’ll have to forget about flying for awhile. There’s no money for that.” Kherchtou testified Wednesday in his second day of direct examination as a key witness against Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.
Ghailani is charged with conspiring and participating in the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 people.
When Kherchtou was asked to describe how al-Qaida refused to pay for his wife’s medical care, he cried.
Although prosecutors have not yet linked Ghailani to bin Laden, the name and images of the world’s most famous terrorist were invoked often throughout questioning. Prosecutor Harry Chernoff projected a photograph of him, and submitted an ABC News video interview with bin Laden as evidence.
Defense attorney Michael Bachrach objected to the footage as “highly prejudicial,” saying the video would make the jurors associate his client with bin Laden before the government has linked them.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan replied that Bachrach had not objected to the witness “testifying at great length” about the views of al-Qaida, its leadership, training protocols and structure. The judge added, “Spare me. Denied.”
Prosecutor Harry Chernoff then read large portions of the English translation of bin Laden’s fatwa, “Kill Americans Everywhere,” originally published in the Arabic newspaper Al Quds al Arabi, and entered the video interview into evidence.
Kherchtou said that al-Qaida devoted one of its “wings” to tracking international media attention, which began with “just collecting news and putting them into magazines.” This branch of the terror group eventually published a “huge” Encyclopedia of Jihad, which Kherchtou said his colleagues “typed, edited” and put in “nice” form.
Kherchtou’s testimony on Tuesday ended after he described finishing his time in Pakistani training camps in 1991.
A year later, al-Qaida relocated from Afghanistan to Sudan, which had implemented sharia law, and wanted to train Muslims to fight and establish dominance in the land.
Kherchtou said he followed al-Qaida to Africa, traveling back and forth from Khartoum, Sudan to Nairobi, Kenya, where he went to flight school and become bin Laden’s pilot.
He said he was probably handpicked because instruction was in English, and he was one of the few al-Qaida trainers who could speak the language.
To travel between countries, many al-Qaida members forged IDs from Mercy International, a nongovernmental organization that provides humanitarian services to orphans and refugees, Kherchtou testified.
He said the charity group tried to put a stop to this when it found out, so fellow al-Qaida member Wadih El-Hage founded his own NGO, called Help Africa People.
By the end of 1995, al-Qaida’s money was “drying up” and the organization tried a number of businesses that failed in the long term, including diamond trafficking, fishing and kiosks, Kherchtou said.
By then, the Taliban had gained control of large parts of Afghanistan, and al-Qaida decided to return to that country from Sudan.
“I decided not to go,” said Kherchtou. He said he had one child and his wife was pregnant, and “I didn’t see a future with them in Afghanistan.”
When Chernoff asked him to describe his falling out with al-Qaida, Kherchtou fell silent. He hung his head low, and Chernoff asked more specifically about al-Qaida’s refusing to pay for his wife’s prenatal care during a complication. Kherchtou put a tissue to his eyes and struggled to utter a syllable until the court relieved him by taking a recess for lunch.
In the afternoon, Kherchtou relaxed as the direct examination turned from his wife’s pregnancy to the bombing in Nairobi.
Nearly 3 years after he parted ways with al-Qaida, Kherchtou said, he returned to Kenya after receiving a letter from his former flight school, saying the instructor’s client requested a pilot who could speak English and Arabic.
Kherchtou said he landed in Nairobi on Aug. 7, 1998, and a truck bomb killed more than 200 people in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy the next day. Kherchtou said that he was saying his Friday morning prayers at the mosque when it happened.
Prosecutors claim that at the time, defendant Ghailani was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where a similar bomb exploded in front of another U.S. Embassy on the same day.
Kherchtou’s life as an informant against al-Qaida began after he was detained while trying to leave the country. First, a foreign intelligence official tried to enlist him to go undercover, and eventually the FBI enlisted him in the witness protection program. He has testified that he was obligated to testify in this and other terrorism trials, under his agreement with the FBI.