Susan Hirsch, a college professor from Donora, Penn., and her husband, a Kenyan citizen named Abdurrahman Abdullah, were running an errand at the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998.
Hirsch, a Fulbright scholar at the time, was inside the embassy cashing a check. Her husband was outside waiting in the car.
The truck bomb killed her husband, likely immediately. He was 38.
Last month, President Obama announced that the US government would be bringing to the US from Guantanamo one of the terrorists wanted in the embassy bombings, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian national held at Guantanamo Bay since September 2006. This morning, the Obama administration announced that Ghailani was coming to the US to be tried.
The news brought relief to Hirsch, who sat through the 2001 trial of four others in the 1998 bombings: Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, and Wadih el Hage.
She wrote a book about her experience, “In the Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief and a Victim’s Quest for Justice.”
“I’m relieved that we’re finally moving forward,” she told ABC News, responding to today’s news.
“It’s really, really important to me that anyone we have in custody accused of acts related to the deaths of my husband and others be held accountable for what they have done,” Hirsch says. “Having sat through that original trial I know there was credible evidence against this individual.” She says she wants to see Ghailani tried, presented with evidence against him, able to provide a defense, and subjected to a jury’s decision.
“To me that would be justice,” she says.
Hirsch says she is “pained” by concerns that President Bush’s detainee policies might have compromised the case against Ghailani.
“Because of the things that have happened through the previous administration it does make it more difficult to have a trial that eventually holds him accountable,” Hirsch says. “There will be many challenges to the prosecution by the defense, because of the years of his detention, the conditions he was subjected to, and the likelihood that he’s been tortured.” (Hirsch acknowledges that she doesn’t know that Ghailani’s been tortured, but says she assumes that to be the case because of claims by other detainees.)
Still, she says, she’s “willing to go through with those concerns because it’s important to return to the rule of law.” She also says the trial proceeding brings the US “one step closer to closing Guantanamo,” which she says has damaged the reputation of the US and made Americans less safe.
And what if Ghailani is found not guilty? Would she be okay with him being released? With the Obama administration keeping him in custody regardless of the verdict?
Hirsch says she feels confident the Obama administration would not have brought this case to a criminal court so quickly if they weren’t confident they could win it.
But a not guilty verdict would be “very troubling” to her, she says. “I’m not fully aware of what alternative there is to this court.” She says she does not support the “indefinite detention of someone who’s not been convicted in a recognizable system of justice,” and would have to see what President Obama’s construct of a military commission is. She didn’t approve of President Bush’s version.
Still she says she’s confident Ghailani will be convicted because of eyewitness testimony from the 2001 trial identifying Ghailani from a photograph.
“It’s gratifying to me at the end to see people held accountable,” she said.
She rejects some of the rhetoric coming from Republicans expressing concern about the physical safety of Americans with Ghailani being brought to the US. “I have some trust in the NYPD” from the 2001 trial, she says. “They’re just raising fear and alarm. There’s a lot more to be afraid of when we have Guantanamo open.”