Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law told a federal jury that he didn’t have any role in terrorist plots and instead, at the behest of the al-Qaeda leader, preached to recruits at an Afghanistan training camp in 2001 to have “merciful hearts.”
Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, testifying today for the first time in his trial in Manhattan federal court, said bin Laden told him, “the training camps involve too many things, weapons, training, roughness, a hard life. I need you to change that to merciful hearts. I want you to train them to have that inside them.”
Abu Ghayth, 48, is the most senior al-Qaeda member to be tried in U.S. civilian court since the terrorist attacks. Prosecutors say he provided material support to the group after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by acting as a spokesman and preaching at the camps. The government also alleges that Abu Ghayth had advance knowledge of terrorism plots, including a foiled scheme to detonate shoe bombs on airplanes that included Richard Reid, who pleaded guilty in the U.S. in 2002.
During the trial, the jury has watched Abu Ghayth on videotapes that were broadcast around the world after 9/11. In the videos, he’s wearing a brown robe and headdress and delivering fiery sermons on behalf of al-Qaeda, including one on Sept. 12, 2001, with bin Laden and other top leaders and another in October 2001, in which Abu Ghayth promised a “storm of airplanes” would attack Americans.
On the stand, the defendant was dressed in a gray business suit and light blue shirt. Speaking quietly, he described growing up in Kuwait and teaching the Koran at religious schools there. He told the jury he traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in June 2001, to learn how the Taliban was running the country. Bin Laden, hearing his reputation as a preacher, asked to meet him during that trip and invited him to speak to the men at the camps, Abu Ghayth said.
Under questioning by his lawyer, Stanley Cohen, Abu Ghayth said any statements he made in the videos were based on suggestions and topics bin Laden provided.
“I didn’t use the phrase ‘storm of airplanes’ in the first video,” he testified, adding that the phrase came later from bin Laden.
Abu Ghayth, who testified in Arabic using an interpreter, said he was in Kabul, Afghanistan, when bin Laden summoned him on the evening of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He said he met the terrorist leader in a cave in a mountainous region in that country with Ayman al-Zawahiri, his top lieutenant, and Abu Hafs al-Masry, head of al-Qaeda’s military operations.
Bin Laden asked him to make statements on behalf of al-Qaeda, he told the jury, giving him “talking points.” Abu Ghayth said he was to use the talking points when he appeared with bin Laden on the Sept. 12, 2001, video in which he is seated next to the terror leader.
After his lawyer asked why he agreed to speak on behalf of al-Qaeda, Abu Ghayth replied that he wasn’t trying to recruit new members.
“My intention was to deliver a message, a message that I gave them, that oppression, if it befalls any nation, any people, any category of people, that category must revolt at some point. People do not accept oppression, they cannot take it,” he testified. “I wanted to proclaim the message that Muslims had to bear responsibility and defend themselves.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara played an excerpt from the Sept. 12, 2001, video in which Abu Ghayth declared “God the almighty has ordered us to terrorize the infidels, so we terrorize the infidels.”
Ferrara questioned Abu Ghayth about his denial that he knew in advance of the plan to attack the U.S.
“You said you didn’t specifically know about them, is that your testimony?” Ferrara asked.
“Yes, but I had heard something would happen but I didn’t know specifically what,” he replied.
“You knew something big was coming?” Ferrara asked.
“Yes,” Abu Ghayth said.
“You learned about that from visiting al-Qaeda training camps?” Ferrara asked.
“I heard that in the camps and also I heard it outside the camp,” Abu Ghayth responded.
At the meeting in the cave the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bin Laden informed him about what happened and asked for his opinion, Abu Ghayth told jurors.
Abu Ghayth testified that “I said, ‘I don’t have any military experience but politically, America -- if it’s proven you are the one who did this -- will not settle until it accomplishes two things -- to kill you and to topple the state of the Taliban.’”
“‘You are being too pessimistic,’” bin Laden responded, Abu Ghayth told the jury.
The U.S. has called Abu Ghayth, a Kuwaiti cleric, one of al-Qaeda’s most influential surviving leaders since U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011. Abu Ghayth was brought to the U.S. last March after he was captured by U.S. agents after a decade-long manhunt as he tried to travel from Jordan to Kuwait, the government said.
The defendant said he was married to a Kuwaiti woman and had seven children. He said he initially moved her and the children from Kuwait to Afghanistan in mid-2001, and his family later returned to his native country because the medical care was better. Abu Ghayth said he stayed in Afghanistan and preached at al-Qaeda camps and safe houses. Abu Ghayth married bin Laden’s eldest daughter Fatima in 2008 or 2009, according to Cohen, Abu Ghayth’s lawyer.
In a hearing today outside the presence of the jury, Cohen told U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the trial, that the defense finished its presentation after being denied a renewed request to call Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept.11, 2001, attacks as a witness. Kaplan told lawyers to be prepared to deliver closing arguments to the jury on March 24.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).