Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, the most senior al-Qaeda member to be tried in a U.S. civilian court, was convicted of aiding the group after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by helping bring in new recruits and serving as a spokesman in fiery speeches broadcast around the globe.
A federal jury in Manhattan yesterday found Sulaiman Abu Ghayth guilty of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, scheming to provide material support to al-Qaeda and providing manpower through his recruiting efforts. Jurors reached their verdict after six hours of deliberations following a three-week trial in a courthouse blocks from where World Trade Center once stood.
The verdict is a “major milestone in the government’s unrelenting efforts to pursue justice against those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks,” U.S. Attorney Eric Holder said in a statement. “I can imagine no more fitting outcome.”
Abu Ghayth, 48, is the highest-profile al-Qaeda adviser to face trial since the Obama administration in 2011 abandoned its plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mohammed is facing prosecution in a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2010, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was convicted of terrorism charges after a federal trial in New York, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee tried in U.S. civilian court.
Ghayth was captured by American agents after a decade-long manhunt and is regarded as among the group’s most influential surviving leaders after Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011. For security, the identities of the nine women and three men on his jury weren’t disclosed and they were escorted to and from the building by U.S. marshals throughout the trial.
The conspiracy to kill Americans charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over the trial, set sentencing for Sept. 8.
Abu Ghayth was portrayed by prosecutors as an “essential” member of al-Qaeda in his role as a spokesman for the group in numerous videos made in the wake of the attacks. The government also alleged he had advance knowledge of other plots, including a foiled scheme to detonate shoe bombs on passenger jets, for which Richard Reid was convicted of terrorism.
Abu Ghayth, an Islamic cleric originally from Kuwait, testified in his own defense that he didn’t play any role in terrorist plots. He insisted that when he preached to recruits at an al-Qaeda training camp in 2001 at bin Laden’s request, he urged them to have “merciful hearts.” His lawyers claimed the government didn’t prove that he was involved in planning the Sept. 11 attacks or knew of the shoe-bomb plot.
Ghayth was more than just bin Laden’s “propaganda minister,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghayth was using his position in al-Qaeda’s homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to al Qaeda in the cause of murdering more Americans.”
The trial featured testimony from two admitted terrorists who were in Afghanistan and in al-Qaeda training camps and met with bin Laden and other leaders before and after the 2001 attacks. Jurors also heard recordings and saw videotapes of Abu Ghayth warning of more attacks against the U.S.
The U.S. alleged that by willingly agreeing on Sept. 11, 2001, to speak on behalf of al-Qaeda in statements and videos to help attract new recruits and suicide bombers, Abu Ghayth had joined the conspiracy to kill Americans. Because his statements also incited others to join as suicide bombers, Abu Ghayth had also provided material support to the terror group, prosecutors said.
“Al-Qaeda needed to send a message that the attacks of Sept. 11 were justified, that the U.S. got what it deserved,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan said during closing arguments. “A message that would encourage al-Qaeda’s fighters. A message that would help replenish al-Qaeda’s new crop of suicide bombers. So just hours after four planes came crashing into our country, amid al-Qaeda’s savage success and the utter chaos of that terrible day, Osama bin Laden turned to this man,” the prosecutor said, pointing at Abu Ghayth.
One video shown to the jury was made on Sept. 12, 2001, and shows Abu Ghayth alongside bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, and Abu Hafs al-Masry, head of al-Qaeda’s military operations, as bin Laden took credit for the attacks.
“America must be ready and stand by and let them fasten their seatbelt, as we will strike them -- by the permission of Allah the glorified and the almighty -- where they least expect it,” Abu Ghayth said in that recording.
Another was an October 2001 videotaped statement in which Abu Ghayth promised a “storm of airplanes would continue” and warned that “if the organization of al-Qaeda promises or threatens, it fulfills.” The U.S. said this was a reference to the shoe-bomb plot that was foiled in December of that year.
In a third video, Abu Ghayth cited al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, resulting in 224 deaths, which he called “a tremendous historical victory that broke the back of Americans.”
The defendant initially claimed his arrest was a case of mistaken identity, that the man the U.S. wanted is a detainee in Guantanamo Bay. Kaplan rejected that defense as “utterly meritless” and said it couldn’t be presented to the jury. The judge also denied Abu Ghayth’s request to use Mohammed as a witness.
When he took the stand, Abu Ghayth said that in 2001, after moving his family from Kuwait to Afghanistan and staying behind when his wife and children moved back, he preached at al-Qaeda camps and safe houses at the request of bin Laden.
“The training camps involve too many things, weapons, training, roughness, a hard life,” he said bin Laden told him. “I need you to change that to merciful hearts. I want you to train them to have that inside them.”
Abu Ghayth told jurors that bin Laden summoned him to a meeting on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. He said he met the terrorist leader outside a cave, camped in a mountainous area of Afghanistan, accompanied by al-Zawahiri and al-Masry. He told jurors bin Laden told him, “We are the ones who did this” and asked for his help speaking out on behalf of the group.
Abu Ghayth testified that statements he made in the videos had been “talking points” provided by bin Laden and not his views.
“Like a consigliere for the mob or the chief of staff to a corrupt foreign leader, Abu Ghayth was the spokesman, confidant, and senior adviser to Bin Laden’s organization,” George Venizelos, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New York, said in a statement after the verdict. “Abu Ghayth looked to better al Qaeda’s reputation at every turn, offering advice and counsel to the organization’s senior leadership.”
Abu Ghayth married bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima, in either 2008 or 2009, his defense lawyer Stanley Cohen said. Cohen said in an interview after court yesterday that he didn’t regret putting his client on the stand.
“No, not at all,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he planned to appeal and may file a motion asking Kaplan to set aside the conviction. Cohen said several rulings and comments made by the judge impaired his client’s ability to receive a fair trial, including the judge’s denial of a defense request to call Mohammed as a witness.
Kaplan yesterday suggested to jurors that if they hadn’t reached a decision by the end of the day, he would consider asking them to remain longer.
“The statements are coercive when he tells the jury that they should be done today,” Cohen said yesterday.
Abu Ghayth remained stoic as the verdict was announced by the judge’s courtroom deputy and nodded as the final count was read.
“He is confident this is the beginning and not the end,” Cohen said.
Cohen argued to the jury during the trial that prosecutors, lacking evidence against his client, were trying to sway them by invoking bin Laden’s name dozens of times.
“The government’s summation was designed to sweep you away in anguish and pain and look away from the lack of evidence in this case,” Cohen said during his closing.
Cohen contended the government failed to prove that Abu Ghayth was aware of the foiled shoe-bomb plot. He said that when Saajid Badat, a U.K. man who admitted being part of that foiled scheme, was shown a photo of his client, he failed to recognize Abu Ghayth even though he had identified many top al-Qaeda officials.
“There’s no proof he recruited fighters, there’s no evidence that Sulaiman Abu Ghayth was involved in recruiting fighters before Sept. 11,” Cohen said. “There’s no evidence he was at the top of al-Qaeda before Sept. 11 and not a shred of evidence, not a single drop of evidence, that Sulaiman Abu Ghayth knew anything about the Saajid Badat and Richard Reid conspiracy.”
The Obama administration said in November 2009 that Mohammed and four others accused of conspiring with him would be tried in federal court in New York. After Republican lawmakers and New York officials opposed the plan, saying such trials posed safety risks, the administration decided in 2011 the men would be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo.
Holder has said one reason for the reversal was that U.S. lawmakers passed legislation that prevented the administration from moving suspects from Guantanamo to the U.S. for civilian trial.
Holder said in his statement yesterday that the verdict proves “proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home, as in other locations across our great nation.”
“It would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest,” Holder said.
John Carlin, acting assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement that in the wake of the 2001 attacks, Abu Ghayth served “as the face and voice of al-Qaeda.” The defendant “will face justice for his role in al-Qaeda’s lethal plot to kill Americans,” he said.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at email@example.com Mary Romano, Peter Blumberg