NEW YORK — A cleric who gave a rousing speech urging jihad against "Jews, Christians and America" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks testified at his terrorism trial Wednesday that he was speaking for Muslims, not for Al Qaeda, even though he delivered his message while sitting beside Osama bin Laden outside his mountain hide-out in Afghanistan.
Sulaiman abu Ghaith held the witness stand for about four hours after defense attorney Stanley Cohen surprised the courtroom by calling the defendant to testify on his own behalf — something Cohen said he had done only twice in his 30-year career. The testimony offered a close-up look into the world of Al Qaeda's top leaders in the hours and days after Sept. 11, as they huddled with Bin Laden in his rocky cave and discussed the potential fallout from the attacks.
Abu Ghaith said he told Bin Laden he expected the United States to pursue the Al Qaeda leader to the death and to destroy the Taliban. Bin Laden responded that Abu Ghaith was "too pessimistic," the defendant said.
Abu Ghaith, who is married to one of Bin Laden's daughters, said he did not know in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred as he was in Kabul, Afghanistan, providing "spiritual training" to young men in Al Qaeda-run camps, a job Bin Laden had asked him to do.
"I had heard something would happen, but I didn't know exactly what," Abu Ghaith said.
He wore a dark suit jacket, light shirt and no tie as he spoke calmly in Arabic. His words were translated into English for the jurors, who listened closely as he described being summoned by Bin Laden a few hours after the hijackings. He arrived at the hide-out to find Bin Laden with other high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders.
"He was worried," Abu Ghaith said of Bin Laden. "He wanted to know from all the people surrounding him what they expected."
Bin Laden asked Abu Ghaith, who was known for being a powerful orator, to deliver a speech and gave him four or five "bullet points" to focus on, he testified. Prosecutors then played a video of the Sept. 12, 2001, speech, which showed Abu Ghaith sitting on the ground on a rocky outcrop beside Bin Laden.
As Bin Laden stared silently at the ground, Abu Ghaith railed against the "foolish policy" of America that he said had prompted the attacks, a policy of "hostility toward Islam and Muslims."
"This is the call for jihad," Abu Ghaith said, urging Muslims to "choose the trench" in which they wanted to fight. "Fight ye against the friends of Satan."
As the speech went on for several minutes, Abu Ghaith's voice rose. In the video, he held a microphone with his right hand and gestured with his left, wagging his forefinger at times or holding his hand over his heart. An AK-47 rifle was perched behind him.
Prosecutors also played portions of an Al Qaeda-produced video that included Abu Ghaith's words interspersed with footage of the Sept. 11 attacks, whose worst damage was inflicted in lower Manhattan just a few blocks from the courthouse where the trial is being held.
"We have been able to strike at the heartland," Abu Ghaith said in the video as a jet smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers and smoke billowed from the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
Under cross-examination, Abu Ghaith denied that in his speeches "we" referred to Al Qaeda. "When we say 'we,' I mean we Muslims," he said. "I was not speaking on behalf of Al Qaeda."
When pressed by Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Ferrara as to how much weight his words carried, considering his stature as an imam, Abu Ghaith replied, "The listener will have to be the judge of that."
Prosecutors say Abu Ghaith, 48, was part of Bin Laden's inner circle. They have described him as the highest-ranking Al Qaeda leader to go on trial in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks. He faces life in prison if convicted of conspiring to kill Americans; conspiring to provide material support and resources to Al Qaeda; and providing material support and resources to Al Qaeda.
Cohen said he decided Monday night to call Abu Ghaith, his final witness, after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan denied his motion to admit testimony from the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Cohen said Mohammed would have testified that Abu Ghaith was not a major player in Al Qaeda's hierarchy and knew nothing about anti-U.S. conspiracies.
Kaplan agreed with prosecutors that Mohammed, who is detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could not offer exculpatory evidence based on written replies he submitted Sunday to defense questions.
After court Wednesday, Cohen said he thought Abu Ghaith "did great" on the witness stand. "What you heard was an imam, a leader … who got caught up in the cross hairs of history," Cohen said.
He dismissed the prosecution's case as one based on "a bunch of videos and a bunch of tapes and nothing more."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times