Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman, shown giving a speech in a video. Abu Ghayth said he was elaborating on talking points given to him by bin Laden. (AP / Al-Jazeera)
UPDATE 3/20/2014:The last paragraph of this article has been updated to reflect that the defense decided late Wednesday to rest its case and will not call any additional witnesses.
Sulaiman Abu Ghayth testified on his own behalf Wednesday, trying to beat back charges he served as a propagandist for al Qaida and recruited fighters for Osama bin Laden immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
In a surprise move, Abu Ghayth took the witness stand and insisted his purpose was benign in the face of clear video evidence of him vowing more attacks on the United States, including one in which he said the “storm of airplanes” would continue.
Abu Ghayth, 48, denied having advance knowledge of any terror plots, said in his speeches he was following “bullet points” given him by bin Laden and insisted he merely wanted to send a religious message to Muslim people about self defense in the face of oppression.
Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, Abu Ghayth described for the jury his initial meetings with bin Laden in June 2001 in Afghanistan, when the al Qaida leader asked him to use his influence as an imam to lecture fighters being trained in camps.
The Kuwait-born cleric then told the jury how he was solicited by bin Laden to make videos for the group after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On the night of Sept. 11, a messenger from bin Laden picked up Abu Ghayth and drove him to a cave inside a mountain, where the leader had about 20 security personnel protecting him and other top members of al Qaida.
Under questioning from defense attorney Stanley Cohen, Abu Ghayth said bin Laden asked him about the airplane hijacking attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and said “we are the ones who did it.” Bin Laden then asked Abu Ghayth what he expected to happen next. “I said I don’t have any military experience to tell you what’s going to happen,” Abu Ghayth said..
He also told bin Laden, “[P]olitically, America, if it is proven you were the ones who did it, will not settle until it accomplishes two things, to kill you and to topple the State of the Taliban.”
On Sept. 12, after bin Laden huddled in the cave with top officials Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs al-Masri, the leader called Abu Ghayth into the cave and said, “after these events, it’s no secret, it’s no brainer to predict what’s going to happen” and “I want you to deliver that message to the rest of the world,” to discuss the religious aspects of the al Qaida resistance.
Within two hours a video was produced showing Abu Ghayth seated at bin Laden’s right hand with al-Zawahiri and al Masri to the leader’s left. Then Abu Ghayth went to work producing videos, giving speeches, and allegedly writing on behalf of al Qaida.
On cross-examination later in the day, Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara took aim at Abu Ghayth’s testimony that he played no role in the plot and his claim to have no knowledge of terror operations. Ferrara asked, in an incredulous tone, whether an incendiary speech Abu Ghayth delivered just after Sept. 11, was dictated by bin Laden.
“You’re telling this jury that that speech was delivered from bullet points?” Ferrara asked.
Abu Ghayth insisted that bin Laden said only to “build a speech around those points and deliver it.”
A key point in the cross came when Ferrara asked why Abu Ghayth returned to Afghanistan on Sept. 7 and whether he knew anything about the impending mass murder on Sept. 11.
“You knew something was coming from al Qaida?” Ferrara said.
“Yes,” Abu Ghayth answered.
“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.
Ferrara opted for a relatively brief cross of the defendant, less than an hour, playing only two videos of Abu Ghayth.
Cohen took the rare step of putting his client on the stand after watching the prosecution play the video recordings of Abu Ghayth making incendiary speeches and after losing a series of motions and evidentiary rulings before Southern District Judge Lewis Kaplan, including his request that 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed be allowed to testify from Guantanamo Bay.
Cohen was allowed to mention the name of Mohammed in questioning his client Wednesday and asked Abu Ghayth about his contacts with the Sept. 11 mastermind.
Abu Ghayth said he had met Mohammed but didn’t know who he was and said he never discussed terrorist plots with Mohammed.
Series of Speeches
Once he agreed to do bin Laden’s bidding, Abu Ghayth said, he proceeded to make the videos, but the central points were provided by bin Laden as well as some of the comments, including the one referring to the “storm of airplanes.”
He said his motivation was to “mitigate” United States “propaganda” and 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.”
Abu Ghayth denied ever meeting Richard Reid or Saajid Badat, conspirators in the plot to blow up airplanes using shoe bombs after Sept. 11. He denied swearing a “bayat” or oath of allegiance to bin Laden.
And he also denied that his speeches were made with the intention of recruiting new al Qaida fighters.
He said, “There was no one who is capable of recruiting other than” bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces in a raid in Pakistan in 2011. Years after he left Afghanistan, Abu Ghayth would become bin Laden’s son-in-law, a fact that is not in evidence before the jury.
Cohen then asked him why he made the videos and speeches.
“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 [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.”
When Abu Ghayth gave an extended answer, referencing Palestinians, Chechnians and Iraqi Muslims, to a straightforward question from Cohen, Kaplan stopped him.
The judge told him to answer a simple question directly and “save the speeches for some other time.”
Earlier, Abu Ghayth said that, in his initial meeting bin Laden, the leader told him that the camps in Afghanistan involved “weapons training, roughness and a hard life but I need you to change that” and prepare the trainees to be “merciful.”
Abu Ghayth said he was invited to meet bin Laden and met him knowing that he was a “suspect in certain acts.”
“Do you recall what those acts were?” Cohen asked.
“Yes, from what I heard…the attacks on the two embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the attacks on the USS Cole,” he said.
Cohen also asked him why he agreed to meet bin Laden.
“I wanted to get to know that person,” he said. “I wanted to see what he had, what it is he wanted.”
The defense said late Wednesday it will not call any more witnesses and rested its case. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.