NEW YORK – Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law offered a rare glimpse of the al-Qaida leader in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, recounting during surprise testimony Wednesday in a Manhattan courtroom how the two met that night in a cave in Afghanistan.
“Did you learn about what happened ... the attacks on the United States?” the son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, recalled bin Laden asking him.
“We are the ones who did it.”
The testimony came as Abu Ghaith’s trial on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group took a dramatic turn. His decision to take the witness stand was announced by his lawyer, Stanley Cohen, who surprised a nearly empty courtroom that quickly filled with spectators as word spread.
Abu Ghaith testified that bin Laden seemed worried that night and asked what he thought would happen next. Abu Ghaith said he predicted America “will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of the Taliban.”
Bin Laden responded: “ ‘You’re being too pessimistic,’” Abu Ghaith recalled.
Bin Laden then offered the onetime imam a job that would gain him infamy as well as a place in the inner circle of the world’s most wanted terrorist. “I want to deliver a message to the world,” Abu Ghaith said bin Laden told him. “... I want you to deliver that message.”
The testimony was a rare gambit by the defense, a last-ditch effort to counter a mountain of evidence against Abu Ghaith, including an alleged confession and videos showing him sitting beside Bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001, and another in which he warned Americans that “the storm of airplanes will not abate.” The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but it contends he was recruited as a religious teacher and orator, and had no role in plotting more attacks.
On cross-examination, though, Abu Ghaith admitted that he sent his pregnant wife, six daughters and a son to Kuwait while he went to Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2001, after hearing inside and outside al-Qaida training camps that something big was going to happen soon.
“I had heard something would happen but I didn’t know what,” he said in response to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara’s questions.
Lacing some questions with sarcasm, Ferrara took particular aim at Abu Ghaith’s claims that he was merely embellishing bin Laden’s “bullet points” on videotapes as he condemned America. And Abu Ghaith’s testimony also gave the prosecutor an opportunity to again show video clips of Abu Ghaith angrily denouncing America and of the second plane hitting a World Trade Center tower on Sept. 11.
Ferrera mocked Abu Ghaith’s statement that he stayed and helped bin Laden for two weeks after Sept. 11 because the conditions in Afghanistan were tense and he had no way to travel.
“You are telling this jury that you made a speech in which you called on people to terrorize the infidels because you didn’t have a personal car?” he said, drawing from one juror a smile and a nod to a fellow juror.
“I don’t understand the question,” Abu Ghaith responded.
Testifying through an Arabic interpreter, the 48-year-old Kuwaiti-born defendant looked relaxed when he first took the stand, wearing a blue shirt, open at the collar, beneath a charcoal-colored jacket.
He testified he first met bin Laden when the al-Qaida leader, who was living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, summoned him in June 2001 after hearing he was a preacher from Kuwait. He took bin Laden’s daughter as an additional wife years after 9/11.
Abu Ghaith said bin Laden explained that the al-Qaida training camps involved so much weapons training and a rough, hard life that he wanted him to give the recruits merciful hearts. He also testified he knew bin Laden was suspected in terrorist attacks but still “wanted to get to know that person.”
The defendant also said that videos he made warning of more attacks on Americans were based on “quotes and points by Sheik Osama.” He testified that his videotaped sermons were religious in nature, and meant to encourage Muslims to fight oppression.
If “oppression befalls ... any category of people, that category must revolt at some point,” he said. “I wanted to proclaim the message that Muslims must bear some responsibility to defend themselves.”
Abu Ghaith said he wasn’t involved in recruiting aspiring terrorists and denied allegations that he had prior knowledge of the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001.
“My intention was to deliver a message, a message I believed in,” he said. “I was hoping the United States would say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk and solve these problems,’ but America was going on and doing what I expected them to do.”
His lawyers said they were hopeful that another part of Abu Ghaith’s testimony, that he had met self-professed Sept. 11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, would cause the federal judge overseeing the trial to reconsider his decision to exclude Mohammed from testifying via videotape from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ferrera zeroed in on Abu Ghaith’s testimony that he accepted an invitation to meet with bin Laden on Sept. 11 because the al-Qaida leader was a sheik who deserved respect, along with his admission that he was aware bin Laden’s organization was behind earlier terrorist attacks against Americans abroad.
“Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans,” the prosecutor asked, “you met with him to be polite?”