NEW YORK — Saajid Badat had been through all the training, from firing weapons while riding a motorcycle to watching dogs and rabbits, trapped under glass, die slow, agonizing deaths as he learned poisoning techniques.
He had laughed with other al-Qaeda members as the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, scanned a list of tall buildings and crossed out the World Trade Center towers weeks after hijackers had destroyed them.
Now, Badat was ready to carry out al-Qaeda’s next big mission, a plan to down two U.S. jetliners using bombs hidden in shoes. He even had his shoe bombs, one for each foot. But the plan fell apart after he visited his mother and father in England.
“My mother and father sat me down. My father said, ‘You better not be one of those sleepers,’” a reference to terrorist sleeper cells, Badat said Tuesday during several hours of testimony in a federal terrorism trial. His mother also registered her disapproval of terrorists, not knowing that her son had spent more than three years training to become a suicide bomber.
“It was then I decided to back out of the mission,” said Badat, 34, who was testifying in the trial of Sulaiman abu Ghaith, described by U.S. officials as the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leader to face trial in the United States on terrorism charges.
Prosecutors allege abu Ghaith was al-Qaeda’s chief propagandist and knew of plans to target the United States. On Monday, they showed portions of videos that abu Ghaith made after September 11 warning of more attacks, including a “storm of airplanes.”
Badat testified that he never saw abu Ghaith during his years in Afghanistan, from January 1999 to 2002, even as he attended events and meetings with high-ranking al-Qaeda chiefs, including Osama bin Laden. Even so, prosecutors say the fact that the shoe-bomb plot was being hatched at the same time abu Ghaith was warning of future attacks shows that abu Ghaith was part of a conspiracy to kill Americans.
Badat testified via video from an undisclosed location in Britain, where he grew up and where he spent 6 1/2 years in prison after his arrest in November 2003 on charges of conspiracy to harm an aircraft. He could not come to New York to testify because he is under indictment here.
Badat’s saucer-like eyes, formal elocution and almost prim demeanor made the tale of his path toward violent jihad all the more remarkable as he described a radicalization that began in 1997 after he had moved from Gloucester, England, to London. There, he fell in with radical Muslims who introduced him to the idea of jihad, and in early 1999 he made his first trip to Afghanistan to begin learning about weapons, explosives and lethal skills.
His most intense training came in early 2001, as he crossed paths with at least one of the future September 11 hijackers in courses that included “security and intelligence,” which Badat described as a “prerequisite” for the more intense course in urban warfare and training.
In that course, he said, recruits were schooled in the art of carrying out operations in urban settings, such as riding on motorcycles while firing small arms. Some targets were named after world leaders at the time such as George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
As Badat worked his way up the ranks, he was given assignments, including researching potential Jewish targets in South Africa. None of the missions compared with the one he was offered shortly after September 11, 2001, when an al-Qaeda leader asked whether he would be willing to blow up a U.S. jetliner.
“I decided yes, I would be willing to do this,” said Badat, who met with bin Laden after agreeing to the mission. Bin Laden told him to recite a Quranic verse if he became nervous.
The shoe-bomb plot involved Badat and another British citizen, Richard Reid. The two were each given a pair of shoes with bombs hidden in the soles in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November 2001. From there, they headed to Britain with their deadly shoes in hope of making their way to the United States and each blowing up a U.S. airliner.
Asked by defense attorney Stanley Cohen how he traveled with the shoe bombs, Badat replied that he simply wore them. On his way back to London from Afghanistan, Badat said he gave one of his shoes to a Malaysian terrorist cell plotting its own airline attack.
It was unclear whether that group, which Badat said included a pilot, ever attempted to bring down a jet using the device.
After speaking with his parents, Badat said, he took apart the remaining shoe bomb and stashed its components in his home. He then called his al-Qaeda handler and asked him to pass a message to Reid: “Tell Van Damme he’ll be on his own.”
Reid, he explained, was given the moniker of the action film star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
In his cross-examination, Cohen attempted to discredit Badat by casting him as a “mass murderer” in training who lacked empathy for his potential victims, whether passengers on a jetliner or small animals. In an especially tense moment, Cohen, sitting across a table from Badat in London, described the screams of a dog and a rabbit that were put under glass and poisoned by an al-Qaeda trainer as recruits, including Badat, watched.
“It was an experiment,” Badat said of the killing of the animals, which represented targets of al-Qaeda. “The instructor would shout out, ‘This is Clinton, this is Bush, this is Sharon.”
At times, Badat’s voice dropped to an inaudible whisper and his eyes were downcast as Cohen asked him about his attitude toward the September 11 attacks.
Badat admitted that upon learning what occurred, he had bowed in prayer to show his joy and had secretly wished he could have been part of the mission.
“I suppose you have an envy. . .and think, ‘I wish that was me,’” Badat said, adding that he now was ashamed of welcoming the deaths of more than 2,800 people.
Badat was arrested in November 2003 and released from a British prison in 2005 after agreeing to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Prosecutors consider him key to their case against abu Ghaith, who faces life in prison if convicted on three charges: conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to provide material support and resources to al-Qaeda, and providing material support and resources to al-Qaeda.
LOS ANGELES TIMES