Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, left, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, is shown in this courtroom sketch during his trial in the Southern District as defense attorney Stanley Cohen makes his opening statement Wednesday. (Reuters/Jane Rosenburg)
Sulaiman Abu Ghayth literally sat at the right hand of Osama bin Laden and played a critical role in announcing al Qaida’s call for jihad against the United States following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a prosecutor told a jury Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin pointed to Abu Ghayth, saying he started work immediately after the attacks, accepting bin Laden’s request to incite more young men to join al Qaida and vow publicly to America that the “storm of airplanes will continue.”
“Osama bin Laden asked that man to deliver al Qaida’s murderous decree to the entire world,” Lewin said. “And what did the defendant do? He agreed. While our buildings still burned, he agreed.”
Delivering his opening argument in the trial before Judge Lewis Kaplan (See Profile), Lewin said the 48-year-old Abu Ghayth, bin Laden’s son-in-law, spent the months leading up to 9/11 in Afghanistan exhorting recruits at training camps and safe houses to prepare for holy war against the United States and its allies.
Lewin flashed a picture of Abu Ghayth seated next to bin Laden and two top al Qaida lieutenants on Sept. 12 as the men plotted to turn the hijackings and the attacks on the World Trade Center to their best advantage.
“It was the most important moment in al Qaida’s savage history,” Lewin said, and Abu Ghayth answered the call, taking to the airwaves to celebrate 9/11 urging Muslims everywhere to pick up arms.
“He invoked his twisted view of Islam and said ‘Fight thee against the friends of Satan—fight against America,’” Lewin said.
Defense lawyer Stanley Cohen later took the floor and told the jury, “You’ve just been to the movies, ladies and gentlemen.”
Cohen assailed the government’s case, including the evidence expected from two government cooperators who were terrorists “on the ground” for al Qaida. Cohen emphasized that his client was not being charged with 9/11, the U.S.S. Cole attacks, or the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa—he was being prosecuted for what he said.
“It’s interesting that they [the government] opened their case to say this was not about 9/11 and then went on to speak about 9/11 10 or 11 times,” Cohen said, after describing his client and asking the jury to keep Ghayth’s public statements in perspective.
“He’s a Muslim. He’s an Arab. He’s from Kuwait. He’s a husband. He’s a father,” Cohen said. “Yes, he’s an Imam. He’s a talker. He’s an ideologue. I may not ask you to like what he said. Some of what he’s said is dumb. It’s stupid.”
Nonetheless, the government had nothing more than “words and associations, words and associations,” Cohen said.
Ghayth faces life in prison for allegedly conspiring to kill United States nationals under 18 U.S.C. 2332(b), conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, under 18 U.S.C. §§2339A and 3238 and providing material support and resources to terrorists, under 18 U.S.C. 981(a)(1)(G) and 28 U.S.C. 2461(c).
All of the allegations center on the period between 2001 and 2002 after Abu Ghayth, an inspirational figure in Kuwait, moved his family to Afghanistan to join the fight.
After 9/11, Lewin said, Abu Ghayth took to the airwaves to say “the 9/11 attacks were the direct result of American policies” and “the American people must know they bear full responsibility for 9/11.”
On Sept. 12, 2001, he called for more al Qaida firefighters to join “jihad against the Americans” and said “the storm of airplanes will not abate.”
Lewin said Abu Ghayth made a similar proclamation a few days later, with “an AK-47 by his side.” A month after 9/11, in another video, Abu Ghayth said “when al Qaida promises or threatens, it fulfills, the storm of airplanes will not stop.”
At that moment, the prosecutor said, a plot to send al Qaida fighters “to bomb and down airplanes with explosives buried in their shoes” was underway—a plot that included one of the government’s two cooperating witnesses in the case.
Lewin, prosecuting the case with assistant U.S. attorneys Michael Ferrara and John Cronan, previewed the evidence, saying first the jury would learn about al Qaida through the testimony of FBI agents and others.
They would hear and see recordings of Abu Ghayth making his incendiary speeches and they would learn about and see “laminated code cards” that contained the names of some 40 al Qaida operatives in Afghanistan—cards that were used by the organization to communicate amongst each other in secret.
The jury will hear from the two cooperators. One, Saajid Badat, planned terror attacks, including the shoe bombing plot and is now an informant for law enforcement. Badat will testify live from London Monday.
Finally, Lewin promised, the jury would hear admissions that Abu Ghayth made to the FBI after being taken into custody and while being flown from Jordan to the United States.
Abu Ghayth admitted he met with bin Laden, gave speeches at camps and compounds to motivate al Qaida trainees, admitted he recorded “proclamation after proclamation” and “knew he was valuable” because he could provide al Qaida with a precious commodity—”people, fighters, personnel,” Lewin said.
Cohen is joined in defending Abu Ghayth by Zoe Dolan, Ashraf Nubani and Geoffrey Stewart, the son of former defense lawyer Lynne Stewart, who recently served a prison term for providing support to a terror group.
Cohen told jurors he was sure they “flinched” when they learned they might be serving on a terrorism trial involving al Qaida.
“You got nervous. We all know you did. This is ugly stuff. It’s painful,” Cohen said. “I’m asking you to breathe in and relax.”
He asked the jury to view the evidence cleanly and to not allow “the substitution of evidence with fright and alarm.”
Cohen said Badat, who has done six years in prison and has “now become this wonderful witness” can’t help the government prove the charges against Abu Ghayth.
“The one thing he doesn’t do is he doesn’t put Sulaiman Abu Ghayth in the middle of a conspiracy to commit shoe bombings anywhere in the world,” Cohen said.
“It’s kind of interesting that Sulaiman Abu Ghayth becomes the point man and he’s organizing all these people and the real terrorist on the ground has no idea who Sulaiman Abu Ghayth is,” Cohen continued, before moving on to disparage the second cooperator.
Cohen closed by citing John Adams’ defense of British Capt. John Preston, put on trial for the murder of patriots at the Boston Massacre, and someone who “everyone presumed was guilty” before Adams won his acquittal.
He asked the jury “to sit there dispassionately and not get swept away in hatred and anger.”
“9/11 hangs heavy over the courtroom—it was a terrible, painful nightmare and we can’t turn back the clock,” he said. But he added that it was up to the jury to prove a man from another country, another religion and another culture “can get his date in court.”
Testimony began Wednesday afternoon with an FBI agent explaining the history and structure of al Qaida and the jury seeing videos of interviews with bin Laden as well as the initial video of Abu Ghayth with bin Laden.