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NY jury deciding fate of former al-Qaida spokesman

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 11:24 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP Photo/Al-Jazeera, File)
FILE - In this undated image made from video and provided by by Al-Jazeera, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, is shown. Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and spokesman still maintains that there was justification for the September 11, 2001 attacks orchestrated by al-Qaida upon the United States. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is being tried in a New York City courtroom for conspiring to kill Americans, is using courtroom theater, intentionally or not, to press his case that the United States is such a bully in the Middle East that even killing civilians was justified.

NEW YORK — A federal jury on Tuesday began considering the fate of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, a Kuwaiti clergyman who became al-Qaida's spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks and warned in widely circulated videos that the "storm of airplanes" would not end.

The New York jury began deliberations after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan read the law that will guide them toward a verdict in the case of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida and could face life in prison if convicted.

The deliberations came a day after Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan told jurors that bin Laden turned to Abu Ghaith the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks to make videos that would "help replenish al-Qaida's stock of suicide terrorists by driving new crops of young men from around the globe to al-Qaida in its war with America."

"So just hours after four planes came crashing into our country, amid al-Qaida's savage success and the utter chaos of that terrible day, Osama bin Laden turned to this man," Cronan said, pointing at the bearded defendant, who calmly listened to an Arabic interpreter through headphones.

Abu Ghaith's attorney, Stanley Cohen, countered that his client was not guilty, saying "there's zero evidence" that the 48-year-old former teacher knew of the conspiracies the government claimed he knew about.

Citing several videos shown to the jury in which Abu Ghaith — sometimes sitting with bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders against a mountainous backdrop — railed against America, Cohen warned jurors not to let prosecutors "intimidate you and to frighten you into returning verdicts not based upon evidence, but fear."

Those videos, though, were portrayed by the government as the centerpiece of their case.

One 2002 al-Qaida propaganda video — titled "Convoy of Martyrs" — features Abu Ghaith preaching over still-horrific scenes of a plane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers. Another shows the defendant looking at bin Laden admiringly as the al-Qaida leader boasts that he knew the attack would make both towers fall.

As an imam recruited to be al-Qaida's chief spokesman in the months following Sept. 11, Abu Ghaith "allowed himself to be caught on tape committing his crimes ... because he never thought they'd be played in this courtroom," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara said Monday in a rebuttal at closing arguments.

"You are looking at a guilty man," the prosecutor told jurors, referring to Abu Ghaith. "You can convict the defendant on those videos alone."

The videos also demonstrated that Abu Ghaith was a more powerful speaker than bin Laden or other al-Qaida leaders who spoke on tape, Cronan said.

"You heard them speak during this trial," he said. "They are dull. They were monotone. That man wasn't. He had energy. He had passion. He was dynamic. He could fire people up."

Cohen, though, said there was no evidence his client had a senior position with al-Qaida. He accused prosecutors of seeking to inflame jurors by repeatedly showing them the martyr video and by endlessly referencing 9/11, even though Abu Ghaith isn't charged in the attack.

The video "was designed, it was intended to sweep you away in anguish, in pain, and to ask for retaliation," Cohen said.

Abu Ghaith was brought to New York last year after his capture in Turkey. He has pleaded not guilty.

The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but it contends that he went to Afghanistan as a religious scholar concerned about oppression of all Muslims and never swore an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.

Taking the witness stand last week, Abu Ghaith recounted how he was summoned to meet with bin Laden in a cave on the night of Sept. 11. When the attacks came up in the conversation, bin Laden told him, "We are the ones who did it," he testified.

"I want to deliver a message to the world. ... I want you to deliver that message," Abu Ghaith said bin Laden then told him.

Abu Ghaith claimed that he worked off talking points provided by bin Laden when speaking about al-Qaida and that he had no intention of recruiting fighters for the group — testimony Cronan called misleading.

"This man was not Osama bin Laden's robot," he said. "He was not his puppet. ... He was no accidental terrorist."

The evidence includes another video from October 2001 in which Abu Ghaith is heard warning of further attacks in the wake of 9/11, saying, "The storm of airplanes will not stop." He also advises Muslims "not to board aircraft and we advise them not to live in high-rises and tall buildings."

Prosecutors have argued the wording is proof the defendant knew in advance about the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001. The defense sought to knock down the accusation by pointing to trial testimony by a convicted al-Qaida operative linked to Reid that indicated he never had any contact with or knowledge of Abu Ghaith.

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