Fall 2011


Federal prosecutor confronts al-Qaida operative in court

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Scott Jones
Nick Lewin '96 is a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

As a kid, Nick Lewin ’96 didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. But he did know what he liked to read — books on crime. Espionage and the mob topped the list.

As it turned out, his youthful reading habits and his future vocation intertwined when Lewin signed on as a federal prosecutor in New York. “If you looked at my reading, you would have found signs that I would have ended up in this office,” Lewin says. But in his new career, he has focused on something he didn’t read about as a kid — terrorism.

Last year, he was part of the prosecution team that won a conviction against al-Qaida operative Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks killed 224 people and wounded more than 4,000. Ghailani is appealing his conviction.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, hundreds of FBI agents were dispatched to East Africa — the largest overseas deployment in the history of the FBI. For his role in the bombings, Ghailani was charged with more than 280 counts of conspiracy and murder. But he had gone into hiding in Pakistan. Over the next six years, he served al-Qaida in a variety of roles including as Osama bin Laden’s cook and bodyguard. In mid-2004, he was captured after a 14-hour firefight with Pakistani authorities. From 2004 to 2009, he was held first at a secret CIA “black site” and then at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Over time, the case largely slipped from the news, though it stayed on the radar of the Justice Department, which doggedly pursued it. Meanwhile, Lewin was on a roundabout path that would eventually land him at the Justice Department. He earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Yale. He served as associate director of the White House Council on Youth Violence and, in the months after the shootings at Columbine High School, he worked on an FBI project that sought to find common denominators among youths involved in school shootings. “The hope was that you would be able to design violence-prevention programs based on real-world school-shooting cases,” Lewin says.

Four years ago, he signed on as a federal prosecutor in New York, where he has worked on white-collar and violent-crime cases. He also represented the Justice Department on the President’s Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force, which assessed the viability of holding federal court trials for suspected terrorists incarcerated at U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

In 2010, Lewin was assigned to the team prosecuting Ghailani, the first and so far only Guantanamo detainee to be tried in the federal court system. The Ghailani case turned out to be a legal and logistical thicket. First, Lewin had to coordinate witness testimony — no small chore given that most witnesses were spread across Kenya and Tanzania, and 12 years had passed since the bombings. “I spent weeks in East Africa going to homes in remote villages, meeting with dozens of witnesses, as well as with husbands, wives and children of the victims,” Lewin recalls.

The case might have fallen apart, but several factors kept it intact. One was the FBI’s ongoing effort to maintain contact with potential witnesses.

“Two of our case agents could go to East Africa 12 years after the bombings, go to people’s homes and be greeted as friends,” Lewin says. The other factor was the desire of African witnesses to come to New York to testify. “They came for many reasons,” Lewin says. “But the transcendent reason was that they had a powerful sense of justice and that testifying was a way to achieve that.”

When he returned from Africa, Lewin joined prosecutors and investigators for last-minute trial preparations. “There were multiple, consecutive all-nighters in preparation for certain aspects of the Ghailani trial,” Lewin recalls. “I became a proficient trial-room floor-sleeper. I was able to lie down on any floor, grab an article of clothing to use as a pillow and get an hour of pretty solid sleep.”

Then, on the eve of the trial, the judge ruled the prosecution’s key witness could not testify. The judge concluded Ghailani had disclosed information under CIA coercion that led the government to identify and locate the witness. (Ghailani’s lawyers said he had been tortured.) The witness was scheduled to testify that he sold Ghailani hundreds of pounds of TNT in the months leading up to the bombing.

Even without the key witness, the case went forward. Lewin delivered the prosecution’s critical opening argument, which outlined the government’s case. He began with a description of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on the morning of Aug. 7, 1998. U.S. Ambassador John Lange had just sat down for a meeting. With him was his Swahili interpreter, then eight months pregnant. A young American Marine stood guard.

Outside, a two-and-a-half ton truck pulled up to the embassy’s front gate. The truck had been turned into a massive bomb. “At 10:30 in the morning, that truck bomb explodes with vicious and lethal force,” Lewin told the jury. “The explosion rips through buildings and blows apart walls. It tears through people … By the time the smoke clears at the embassy that morning, 11 people are dead and scores more are injured.” The ambassador, his interpreter and the Marine survived and testified at the trial.

Lewin then shifted to the defendant’s role. Ghailani, he said, was part of an al-Qaida terror cell that orchestrated the Tanzanian bombing and another bombing 10 minutes earlier at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Lewin said Ghailani acquired the truck used in the Dar es Salaam bombing through a cash deal with a street-corner used-car salesman. He also bought about twenty 150-pound tanks that were filled with gas — some with pure oxygen, others with acetylene — and crammed them into the truck. When mixed, these gases produce a white-hot flame that can melt steel. The actual attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.

After a month-long trial and five days of deliberations, the jury’s verdict was read. On count one, Ghailani was found not guilty. Count two — not guilty. Count three — not guilty. Count four — not guilty. “My brain initially didn’t have a chance to catch up with the verdict as the foreman was reading it,” Lewin recalls. “By the time my brain did catch up, the foreman said, ‘Guilty on count five.’” Count five specified that Ghailani had conspired to destroy government buildings and that his actions had resulted in the death of another person.

As it turned out, it was the only guilty finding among 280 counts in the indictment. But it was enough. It carried a maximum life sentence, which the judge imposed. Ghailani is imprisoned in the federal “Supermax” facility in Colorado, where his fellow inmates include Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Now Lewin is on to other investigations. As is often the case with prosecutors, he can’t talk about them. But he can talk about the job: he says he loves it despite the pressures, grueling workload and months away from home. He is where the action is. “New York is a huge city, so you get huge problems. You have terrorism, organized crime, financial scandals and public corruption,” he says. “There’s no job in the legal world that I would rather have.”

This story was based in part on federal court records and the Ghailani trial transcript.