Defense counsel for Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, Geoffrey S. Stewart, Stanley Cohen and Zoe J. Dolan, speak to the press outside the Southern District court yesterday after their client was convicted on all counts. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
Sulaiman Abu Ghayth was found guilty Wednesday for conspiring with al Qaida to kill Americans anywhere in the world.
The jury in Southern District Judge Lewis Kaplan’s courtroom emerged after six hours of deliberations to find Abu Ghayth guilty on all three counts for serving as a propagandist and a recruiter for Osama bin Laden’s jihad against the United States.
Abu Ghayth, in a charcoal grey suit, white shirt and no tie, stood among his lawyers at the defense table and showed almost no reaction, nodding only slightly after hearing through his headphones an interpreter relate the third “guilty” being read out by a courtroom deputy.
The verdict will almost certainly result in life in prison for Abu Ghayth, a son-in-law of the late bin Laden, when he is sentenced on Sept. 8—a term that in all likelihood he will serve with other convicted terrorists at the high security “Supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo. He is the highest-profile al Qaida official to be tried in a U.S. courtroom.
Following the verdict, Abu Ghayth nodded and smiled when lead defense lawyer Stanley Cohen patted him on the arm as he was led from the courtroom.
“He [Abu Ghayth] was stoic, he was at ease,” Cohen said outside the courtroom as he vowed an appeal on several issues. “He’s confident that this is not the end but the beginning.”
Abu Ghayth was convicted with his own words, both on videos in which he told America that the “storm of airplanes” would continue after Sept. 11, and in his own testimony from the witness stand, when he described meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan, agreeing to address the troops at al Qaida training camps, and, on Sept. 11, 2001, signing on to help the terror group take its message worldwide.
The 48-year-old Kuwait native, who would become bin Laden’s son-in-law some seven years after 9/11, spoke calmly from the witness stand when asked why he agreed during a meeting in a cave with bin Laden to proselytize for al Qaida.
“My intention was to deliver a message, a message that I believed in: that oppression, if it befalls any nation, any people, any category of people, that category must revolt at some point,” he said. “People do not accept oppression, they cannot take it and what happened [on 9/11] was a result, a natural result [of] the oppression that befell Muslims. I wanted to proclaim the message that Muslims had to bear some responsibility and defend themselves.”
Abu Ghayth had some less than credible moments on the witness stand, at one point telling the jury that his first videotaped speech, delivered the day after Sept. 11, was largely based on “bullet points” given him by bin Laden and, at another point, when he said he was “hoping after all these speeches and videos that the U.S. might say “let’s go and sit down and talk and solve these problems.”
But his worst moment came when Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara, questioning him on his return to Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2001, asked whether he knew about the impending attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Abu Ghayth conceded he knew something big was coming,
“You learned about this while visiting training camps, right?” Ferrara asked.
“I heard that in camp and also I heard it outside of the camp,” Abu Ghayth said.
Abu Ghayth also couldn’t shake a photo, taken from a video, of him seated next to bin Laden outside a cave on Sept.12, along with al Qaida leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs al-Masri.
It was the first thing the prosecution put up on the video screen during Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin’s opening statement, when Lewin told the jury that the video was taken just after Abu Ghayth had promised to help recruit and provide al Qaida with its most “precious commodity”—fighters willing to die for the cause.
Lewin told the jury of nine women and three men that the evidence would show that bin Laden asked Abu Ghayth to “deliver al Qaida’s murderous decree to the world” and “While our buildings still burned, he agreed.”
Faced with such devastating, direct evidence, the defense team of Cohen, Geoffrey Stewart, Zoe Dolan and Ashraf Nubani struggled to defend Abu Ghayth, with Cohen in his opening statements declaring that the government was offering no more than “words and associations.”
The defense launched a late and doomed attempt to have Sept.11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed testify in one form or another from his cell in Guantanamo Bay.
They eventually got written questions answered by Mohammed, but Kaplan ruled the application came too late and that Mohammed’s answers were not material to the defense because they proved nothing.
At closing, Cohen told the jury that none of the defense witnesses, including two cooperators, could place Abu Ghayth at the center of the conspiracy.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan had already driven home the point in his closing, reminding the jury that the videos told the story—that Abu Ghayth was “a fiery speaker and orator” who was enlisted as bin Laden’s “principal messenger” to incite and inspire young Muslim radicals willing to kill themselves in the battle against the United States.
After the verdict, Cohen, a self-styled radical lawyer who has been defending unpopular clients for 31 years, said there were several viable issues for appeal, including Kaplan’s denial of the request to admit some form of testimony from Mohammed.
Cohen faulted the judge’s jury instructions, which he said, in effect, linked Abu Ghayth to a conspiracy stretching far back in time before he joined bin Laden in Afghanistan.
And he faulted Kaplan for what he characterized as urging the jury to work toward a verdict when they assembled at 9:30 a.m. today. He said of the judge’s comments it “disempowers persons who may have been holdouts.”
Cohen also said he would continue to pursue a claim that his client’s speedy trial rights were violated and he suffered “beatings and torture for 11 years” while being held in Iran following his flight from Afghanistan.
Cohen then said Abu Ghayth was ready for the next step.
“I think he feels we did everything we could have done and that it was impossible to have a fair trial given certain rulings by the judge,” Cohen said.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a statement following the verdict saying Abu Ghayth was “more than just Usama bin Laden propaganda minister.”
“Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghayth was using his position in al Qaida’s homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to al Qaida in the cause of murdering more Americans,” Bharara said, adding he hoped the verdict will bring “some small measure of comfort to the families of the victims of al Qaida’s murderdous crimes.”