NEW YORK — Alleged al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman abu Ghaith testified at his federal terrorism trial Wednesday that Osama bin Laden chided him for being too fearful of U.S. retaliation during a meeting in a cave on the night of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We are the ones who did it!” bin Laden told Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti imam the al-Qaida leader had summoned to his mountainous Afghanistan hideaway, a two- to three-hour drive from Kabul. But then a “worried” bin Laden asked abu Ghaith what he thought would happen.
When Abu Ghaith predicted America would kill bin Laden and topple the Taliban, bin Laden responded, “You are being too pessimistic,” Abu Ghaith testified. “I said, ‘You asked my opinion, and this is my opinion.’ “
Abu Ghaith, 48, who later married bin Laden’s daughter, is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and give material support to al-Qaida by using his fiery oratory to recruit and spread propaganda in video and audio tapes after Sept. 11.
He is the most senior alleged member of al-Qaida to go on trial since 2001. Prosecutors don’t claim that Abu Ghaith had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, but say he justified them in a notorious Sept. 12 video with bin Laden.
Prosecutors also allege that he knew of a follow-up plot to detonate shoe bombs on planes that he referenced in speeches threatening a “storm of airplanes.”
One of only a few alleged terrorists to testify at their trials, Abu Ghaith was direct and composed, punctuating points with his hands and drawing only one reproach from the judge for speechifying.
Abu Ghaith attempted to portray his involvement as almost accidental. He said he went to Afghanistan to preach and teach in mid-2001, later brought his family over, ran into bin Laden by chance and agreed to give religious speeches at al-Qaida training camps.
“Osama bin Laden told me the training camp involves … weapons, training, roughness, and hard life,” he testified through an Arabic interpreter. “But I need you to change that, that you put it in their heart, you change that into merciful heart.”
He denied knowing about any al-Qaida plots in advance, conspiring to kill Americans or ever joining al-Qaida.
After being summoned on Sept. 11, Abu Ghaith said he was persuaded to give religious-themed speeches based on “bullet points” from bin Laden that were within his expertise as an imam. But he insisted he wasn’t speaking for al-Qaida — words like “us” and “we” referred to all Muslims, he said — and was not recruiting fighters.
“There is no one who can recruit anyone except Osama bin Laden,” he said during questioning by his attorney, Stanley Cohen. “My intent was to deliver a message I believe in—that … what happened was the natural result of oppression that befell Muslims. I wanted to deliver the message that Muslims have to bear responsibility and defend themselves.”
Abu Ghaith also said he hoped after Sept. 11 that by delivering propaganda, he would “reduce the attacks on us . . . these poor people who had no means of defending themselves,” and that “the U.S. would say let’s sit down and talk and solve this problem.”
On cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Ferrara asked Abu Ghaith why he met in the first place with a man he knew had been involved in planning terrorist acts that killed hundreds, and why he still referred to bin Laden as a “sheik”—a term of respect.
“That is his title,” abu Ghaith answered. “And that has nothing related to the incident that happened before . . . I didn’t go to meet with him to bless if he had killed hundreds of American or not. I went to meet with him to know what he want.”
Abu Ghaith’s testimony also gave prosecutors the opportunity to replay for the jury two of the videos he recorded in 2001. As Abu Ghaith watched silently, his speech echoed in the courtroom as pictures of the smoking Twin Towers played.
“You said in that speech, ‘God the Almighty has ordered us to terrorize the infidels, so we terrorized the infidels.’ Isn’t that right?” Ferrara asked Abu Ghaith after one of the videos.