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.”

He agreed to give lectures—a kind of spiritual training—to recruits at al Qaeda camps, but said he never officially joined the group, and he denied knowing “specifically” about the planes plot during the summer of 2001.

“I had heard something could happen, but I didn’t know exactly what,” Abu Ghaith testified.

“You knew something big was coming from al Qaeda?” pressed prosecutor Michael Ferrara on cross-examination.

“Yes,” Abu Ghaith said.

Sounding incredulous that Abu Ghaith had reunited with bin Laden on the evening of 9/11, Ferrara went on: “You knew on September 11th that thousands of people had been killed, did you not?”

“I got to know that later on,” Abu Ghaith said.  He continued to call bin Laden “Sheik Osama” as a sign of respect.

In early October, still traveling with bin Laden’s inner circle, Abu Ghaith recorded a second video disseminated worldwide. He discussed 9/11 as the “natural result” of  “oppression” of Muslims in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Chechnya.  Then he warned Muslims in the U.S. and U.K. not to fly planes or live in tall buildings. He said, “The storm of aircrafts will not stop.”

It sounded like he knew what was coming next, and prosecutors argue Abu Ghaith knew in advance of the shoe bomb plot Richard Reid would attempt to carry out on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December 2001.

Abu Ghaith testified that assertion was wrong. He also denied the prosecution’s accusation that his videos were a recruiting tool. “There‘s no one capable of recruiting anyone except Osama bin Laden. My intention was not to recruit anyone,” Abu Ghaith testified. “I wanted to proclaim the message that Muslims had to bear responsibility and defend themselves.”

Bin Laden founded al Qaeda, an Arabic word meaning “the base,” in 1989 amidst the ashes of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that was repelled by Muslim fighters known as mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” The support of “Arab Afghans” like the rich Saudi exile bin Laden boosted their ranks.

Gradually, bin Laden redirected his followers’ collective thirst for jihad, or “holy war,” toward the United States, as he became enraged by American troop deployments in Muslim nations from Saudi Arabia to Somalia. His favorite metaphor for the U.S. was a snake whose head needed to be chopped off. Bin Laden escalated his rhetoric in a pair of late 1990s fatwahs, or religious decrees, declaring war on the U.S. and sanctioning attacks on Americans anywhere in the world.

After the U.S. retaliated for 9/11 with the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Ghaith agreed to make more propaganda videos, he testified, “to reduce the amount of attack on us, on me, and these poor [Afghan] people that they have no way of defending themselves.”

Abu Ghaith told the jury that when he used the first-person plural in his post-9/11 videos, he was talking about Muslims in general, not al Qaeda. “When I said we, I meant we Muslims, we Muslim nation.  I was not speaking on behalf of al Qaeda,” he said.

“You believed in the words, right?” asked prosecutor Ferrara.

“Yes,” Abu Ghaith said.

The defense team decided to have Abu Ghaith take the stand only after a ruling Tuesday by the trial judge, Lewis Kaplan, disallowed any testimony by self-confessed chief 9/11 planner, Khalid Shaykh Mohammad  who is incarcerated at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense lawyer Stanley Cohen and his co-counsel, Zoe Dolan had hoped Mohammad would be allowed to speak via a video hookup from Guantanamo, or at least through a videotaped deposition, telling the jury Abu Ghaith had had no advance knowledge of the shoe-bombing plot or other “military operations.” As Cohen conceded on Wednesday, it would have been easier to get Jimmy Hoffa on the witness stand. The defense rested its case. “The most important thing in this case is Mr. Abu Ghaith 's testimony.  He got to tell his story," Dolan told me. "The bottom line is his words.”

Toward the end of his direct examination of his client, Cohen asked, “While you were in Afghanistan, did you ever participate in any plan to kill Americans or anyone else?”

“No,” Abu Ghaith said.

“If you thought by lying you could walk out of this courtroom, would you lie?” Cohen continued.

“No,” he said.  “I believe that by lying you get nowhere.  Sooner or later your lies will be discovered.”

Next week, the jury will deliberate on whether it believes Abu Ghaith or the government.