The Reluctant al Qaeda Messenger?

On trial at a Manhattan federal court this week, Suleiman Abu Ghaith took the witness stand and insisted that he never meant to become a spokesperson for Osama bin Laden.
Abu Ghaith appears in a still from an October 2001 video, explaining the rationale behind 9/11: "God the Almighty has ordered us to terrorize the disbelievers, so we terrorized the disbelievers." (US Attorney SDNY )

As night fell in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 11, 2001, Kuwaiti imam Suleiman Abu Ghaith was at a house he had rented for himself and his family.  He says he learned of the attacks on America from watching television.

That evening, Osama bin Laden sent a car to pick up Abu Ghaith and drive him two to three hours to a mountainous area he had never been to before. Bin Laden was waiting in a cave with his entourage.

“We are the ones who did it,” the al Qaeda leader told his visitor, who judged the world’s most wanted man to be more worried than happy.  “What do you expect to happen?”

Abu Ghaith warned bin Laden that America “will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of the Taliban.”

“You are being too pessimistic,” bin Laden replied.

Given the late hour and long journey, Abu Ghaith says he felt he had no choice but to sleep under the stars with his hosts.

“I want to deliver a message to the world,” bin Laden told Abu Ghaith the following morning. “I want you to deliver that message.”

“If you would kindly spare me that mission, it will be better,” Abu Ghaith remembers telling the leader.

“No, I insist that you speak,” said bin Laden.  “Mention some of the Koranic verses … that justify why those attacks happened.”

Bin Laden gave the imam handwritten talking points.  Two hours later, clad in a camouflage vest over his robe and with an AK-47 assault rifle resting on the rocks behind him, Abu Ghaith held a microphone and taped his on-camera address. He called 9/11 “reciprocity” for American “conspicuous hostility toward Islam and Muslims” and “direct intrusion into the policies of Arab countries.”

Abu Ghaith spoke for several minutes, presenting al Qaeda’s rationale for the attacks that had killed nearly 3,000 people. “Muslims’ sons will not stop under any circumstances at all to seek revenge for the injustice and oppression they are subjected to,” said Abu Ghyath.  “This is the call for jihad summoning you!” Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, then followed with shorter remarks.

A courier left with the videotape, and it was soon broadcast to a global audience stunned by 9/11 and hungry for information about the group responsible. Abu Ghaith seemed to be al Qaeda’s new spokesman. He would appear in at least five more videos by year’s end.

“All the videos which I filmed were the thoughts and the points made by Sheik Osama,” said Abu Ghaith , recounting the above events on Wednesday through an Arabic interpreter before the jury that will decide his fate.

A surprise witness in his own defense, Abu Ghaith is the first of the alleged al Qaeda operatives who spent time in Afghanistan to testify in a civilian court since Zacarias Moussaoui, the nation’s only convicted 9/11 conspirator, did so in 2006. Moussaoui received a life sentence. 

Abu Ghaith ’s taped appearances on behalf of al Qaeda form the essence of the main charge for which he is standing trial in a Manhattan federal court: participating in the group’s 25-year-old global conspiracy to kill Americans. For the past two weeks, a multiracial jury of nine women and three men have watched and listened as federal prosecutors made the case for Abu Ghaith to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. It is the first major federal trial of an alleged al Qaeda insider since U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden three years ago at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Ghaith is a 48-year-old Kuwaiti imam and teacher who married bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima, in 2008, when both were under house arrest with others in Iran.  (The couple has two young children; Abu Ghaith fathered nine other children with two former wives).

The most incriminating fact of Abu Ghaith ’s case is his visible proximity to bin Laden right before, during, and immediately after the 9/11. Abu Ghaith said curiosity about the Taliban and a desire to teach in Afghanistan drew him to the war-torn nation in June 2001.  When bin Laden learned the fiery Kuwaiti imam was in Kandahar, the terrorist leader invited him to meet at his family compound.

Abu Ghaith agreed, even though he knew of bin Laden’s alleged responsibility for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured several thousand people, as well as the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors.

“I wanted to get to know that person.  I wanted to see what … is it that he wanted,” Abu Ghaith said.  “It’s impolite when you get invited by someone that you decline.”

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Phil Hirschkorn is a TV news producer and reporter in New York. 

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