Sulaiman Abu Ghayth (middle) looks on in this courtroom sketch as prosecutors and defense make final arguments during his trial in the Southern District yesterday. At right, next to Abu Ghayth, is his defense attorney Stanley Cohen. Inset photo: John Cronan, the prosecutor. (Reuters/Jane Rosenberg (sketch), AP/Louis Lanzano (photo))
Southern District prosecutor John Cronan turned and pointed to Sulaiman Abu Ghayth as he told the jury the propagandist was at the very heart of al Qaida’s terror campaign against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
That same day, Cronan asserted, Osama bin Laden asked Ghayth “to send a message—a message that al Qaida’s attacks on 9/11 were justified and the United States got what it deserved” and to put the call out to young Muslim men to “help replenish al Qaida’s stock of suicide terrorists.”
“Just hours after four planes came crashing into our country and al Qaida’s savage success, and in the utter chaos of that terrible day, Osama bin Laden turned to this man,” Cronan said during his closing argument in the trial before Judge Lewis Kaplan.
Cronan reminded the jury of devastating propaganda videotapes, interviews and speeches by Abu Ghayth, and even the defendant’s own testimony from the witness stand, as clear evidence showing that “Time and time again in the months following Sept. 11, Abu Ghayth spoke proudly as bin Laden’s principal mouthpiece.”
Cronan, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District, told the jury the Abu Ghayth trial was brief “because the crimes this man committed are straightforward and the evidence he committed these crimes is overwhelming.”
Openings in the case were held on March 5 (NYLJ, March 6).
Stanley Cohen, lead lawyer for Abu Ghayth, answered back in the afternoon, saying the government had failed to live up to its promises to prove Abu Ghayth was key recruiter a major figure in al Qaida or even a “trusted friend” of bin Laden’s.
“There’s not a drop of evidence before this jury that Sulaiman Abu Ghayth was involved in recruiting fighters,” Cohen said. “There’s nothing in front of this jury that proves Sulaiman Abu Ghayth was at the top of al Qaida before 9/11 or after 9/11.”
Cohen faulted Cronan and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Ferrara and Nicholas Lewin for falling far short of meeting their burden of proof. He accused the government of asking the jury to reach a guilty verdict, “not based on evidence but based on fear.”
Facing a jury that had repeatedly seen a picture of his client sitting next to bin Laden right after the Sept. 11 attacks and had repeatedly seen Abu Ghayth’s incendiary videos and statements, Cohen took the unusual step of having his client take the witness stand (NYLJ, March 20).
Yesterday, Cohen claimed the prosecution barely touched his client on cross-examination.
Instead, he said, the prosecution showed videos “over and over and over again”—and the last thing the jury saw was a picture of the World Trade Center on fire.
“It had nothing to do with the cross exam,” Cohen said. “It was designed, it was intended, to sweep you away in anguish and pain” so the government could “ask for retaliation.”
But Cronan was able to remind the jury about one piece of testimony Abu Ghayth offered from the witness stand under cross-examination by Ferrara.
While denying advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot, Abu Ghayth acknowledged that he returned to Afghanistan on Sept. 7. 2001 and learned that something was coming from al Qaida.
“I heard that in camp and also I heard it outside of camp,” Abu Ghayth said.
Yesterday, Cronan mocked Abu Ghayth’s response on cross-examination when asked about the videos and statements he made on behalf of al Qaida while using the term “we.”
Abu Ghayth said the phrase “we” referred to Muslims in general, but Cronan put the statements up on the screen for the jury to see Abu Ghayth was obviously referring to, and advocating for, al Qaida when he used the term “we.”
Demeanor in Court
The 48-year-old imam, who would later become bin Laden’s son-in-law, was recruited for his ability to inspire people, Cronan said, as Abu Ghayth “had energy, he had passion, he was dynamic, he could fire people up.”
Throughout the proceedings, dressed in one of two suits he wore to the trial and looking anything but the fiery cleric pictured next to the world’s most wanted man after Sept, 11, Abu Ghayth sat quietly between his lawyers, listening intently as an Arabic translator relayed the questions to witnesses, the answers and objections of the attorneys.
On the witness stand, he answered questions directly and refused to be goaded. At one point, he tried to give an extended answer to a question and was chided by Kaplan, who told him to “save the speeches for another time.”
Ferrara during his rebuttal Monday told the jury he would have asked Abu Ghayth more questions but the defendant had already inculpated himself, admitting he had agreed to help “Sheik” bin Laden.
In the summer of 2001, he said he agreed to lecture young recruits going through the hard life of the training camps because bin Laden wanted him to make the recruits “merciful.”
But after the attacks, Abu Ghayth matter-of-factly told the jury, that bin Laden said to him “we are the ones who did it.”
Abu Ghayth said he agreed to continue helping al Qaida but insisted, against the evidence, that his statements were more about the Muslim people defending themselves in a more general sense to fight oppression.
Abu Ghayth faces life in prison on three counts based on his activities from 2001 to 2002, conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, providing material resources and support to al Qaida’s terror conspiracy, and conspiring to provide material support, all by providing himself and recruiting others to the cause.
In his closing arguments, Cronan said that prior to 9/11, Abu Ghayth admittedly spoke to recruits at al Qaida military training camps in Afghanistan at the behest of bin Laden, “where young men were indoctrinated with hatred for America.”
Then, on the day of the attacks, Cronan told the jury Abu Ghayth was summoned to a cave in a remote mountain area, where the leader said al Qaida had executed the attacks and needed Abu Ghayth to help with the next phase.
Soon, Abu Ghayth was vowing that the “storm of airplanes” would continue and was warning Muslims, children and other innocents to stay out of high-rise buildings.
Part of his job, Cronan said “was to justify mass murder to al Qaida recruits.”
“Al Qaida at its core is and always has been about killing Americans,” he said.
Cohen also used his closing to attack the credibility of government witnesses, including expert witness and terrorism consultant Evan Kohlman, who he called the government’s “master speculator” on al Qaida, and the lack of evidence in the case on the supposed effectiveness of Abu Ghayth’s recruiting efforts.
Cohen, who is joined in representing Abu Ghayth by Zoe Dolan, Ashraf Nubani and Geoffrey Stewart, spent a great deal of time going after another government witness, would be shoe-bomber Saajid Badat.
Badat bailed out of the shoe-bomb plot that ultimately ended in failure with the capture of Richard Reid in 2001. He is now a government cooperator after serving six years in a British prison, has testified in another terrorism trial in Brooklyn and is slated, Cohen said, to testify against Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at his military trial at Guantanamo Bay.
Badat at one point worked in the al Qaida media office, met with Mohammed and bin Laden, and was deeply involved in the training camps in Afghanistan, Cohen said.
Badat, Cohen said, “is a guy who is everywhere” in al Qaida and yet Badat never met Abu Ghayth, “he never saw him with al Qaida hard core, he never heard him preach, he never heard him recruit.”
Ferrara delivered the government’s rebuttal, telling the jury there was “no dispute” on one piece of evidence after another, including that Abu Ghayth confessed to his crime both to the FBI and on the witness stand.
“The defendant never tried to hide his crimes because he was proud of them,” Ferrara said.
Kaplan is expected to charge the jury on the law Tuesday morning.