Jurors at the Manhattan trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law watched video of al-Qaida's leaders threaten America before and after the Sept. 11 attacks as the government launched its case against the terror group's one-time spokesman, a presentation dismissed by a defense lawyer as movie-like theatrics.
Jurors at the Manhattan trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law watched video of al-Qaida’s leaders threaten America before and after the Sept. 11 attacks as the government launched its case against the terror group’s one-time spokesman, a presentation dismissed by a defense lawyer as movie-like theatrics.
Prosecutors made heavy use Wednesday of the monitors in front of nine women and three men serving as jurors in the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on U.S. soil since suicide attackers struck the city’s twin towers more than a dozen years ago.
They showed video clips of bin Laden in the 1990s urging the deaths of Americans anywhere they were found and displayed pictures of Abu Ghaith, an assault rifle by his side, sitting with bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders in the days and months after the attacks.
The trial’s first witness, FBI Agent James Fitzgerald, who traveled the world investigating al-Qaida before and after 9/11, enabled the government to tell how bin Laden used his terror network in the late 1990s to carry out several major attacks on Americans.
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Those attacks included the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans, and the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara asked Fitzgerald whether the FBI’s investigation into 9/11 had turned up any evidence that Abu Ghaith was involved.
“No,” he replied.
In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin said bin Laden summoned Abu Ghaith on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, and asked him to use his oratory skills as the public face of al-Qaida to recruit and inspire recruits to attack the United States again.
“While our buildings still burned, he agreed … in what is the most important moment in al-Qaida’s savage history,” Lewin said, showing jurors a photo of Abu Ghaith sitting side-by-side with bin Laden and his top two lieutenants in Afghanistan on Sept. 12, 2001. “He invoked his twisted view of Islam and declared, ‘Fight thee against the friends of Satan. Fight with al-Qaida against America.'”
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen countered by pointing out that Lewin referenced the Sept. 11 attacks several times in his opening, even though his client wasn’t involved in the plot.
“This is not Osama bin Laden,” Cohen said, pointing to Abu Ghaith. “This is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Muslim, an Arab from Kuwait, a husband, a father, an imam, a talker, an ideologue.”
The defendant, who wore a suit and tie to court, listened through an Arabic interpreter and occasionally took notes.
Abu Ghaith, 48, a onetime imam at a Kuwaiti mosque, was brought to New York from Turkey last year. He has pleaded not guilty to charges he conspired to kill Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks and provided material support and resources to al-Qaida. Born in Kuwait, he is married to bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima. According to Cohen, they were married in 2008 or 2009.
Prosecutors allege Abu Ghaith began his rise through the ranks for al-Qaida by becoming a motivational speaker at safe houses and training camps for aspiring jihadists in the weeks and months before Sept. 11. Afterward, bin Laden instructed him to lead recruitment efforts by appearing in widely distributed videos.
“For more than a year after, the defendant used the murderous power of his words to try to strengthen al-Qaida,” Lewin said.
He quoted the defendant several times, including one remark he said came weeks after the attack: “These young men who have destroyed the United States and launched the storm of airplanes against it have done a good deed. The storm of airplanes will not abate.”
The government contends the statements are evidence that Abu Ghaith had prior knowledge of the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001 and another plot to down a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in shoes. Prosecutors are expected to introduce testimony via video feed of another former al-Qaida member in Great Britain who was in on the shoe-bomb plot.
Cohen told jurors they might feel outrage over some of the “dumb” and “stupid” statements made by his client. But he urged them to keep open minds.
“At the end of the day, there’s really no evidence,” Cohen said. “There is the substitution for evidence with fright and alarm.”