A federal jury on Tuesday began considering the fate of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, a Kuwaiti clergyman who became al-Qaida’s spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks and warned in widely circulated videos that the “storm of airplanes” would not end.
The New York jury began deliberations after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan read the law that will guide them toward a verdict in the case of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida and could face life in prison if convicted.
The deliberations came a day after Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan told jurors that bin Laden turned to Abu Ghaith the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks to make videos that would “help replenish al-Qaida’s stock of suicide terrorists by driving new crops of young men from around the globe to al-Qaida in its war with America.”
“So just hours after four planes came crashing into our country, amid al-Qaida’s savage success and the utter chaos of that terrible day, Osama bin Laden turned to this man,” Cronan said, pointing at the bearded defendant, who calmly listened to an Arabic interpreter through headphones.
Abu Ghaith’s attorney, Stanley Cohen, countered that his client was not guilty, saying “there’s zero evidence” that the 48-year-old former teacher knew of the conspiracies the government claimed he knew about.
Citing several videos shown to the jury in which Abu Ghaith — sometimes sitting with bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders against a mountainous backdrop — railed against America, Cohen warned jurors not to let prosecutors “intimidate you and to frighten you into returning verdicts not based upon evidence, but fear.”
Those videos, though, were portrayed by the government as the centerpiece of their case.
One 2002 al-Qaida propaganda video — titled “Convoy of Martyrs” — features Abu Ghaith preaching over still-horrific scenes of a plane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers. Another shows the defendant looking at bin Laden admiringly as the al-Qaida leader boasts that he knew the attack would make both towers fall.
As an imam recruited to be al-Qaida’s chief spokesman in the months following Sept. 11, Abu Ghaith “allowed himself to be caught on tape committing his crimes … because he never thought they’d be played in this courtroom,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara said Monday in a rebuttal at closing arguments.
“You are looking at a guilty man,” the prosecutor told jurors, referring to Abu Ghaith. “You can convict the defendant on those videos alone.”
The videos also demonstrated that Abu Ghaith was a more powerful speaker than bin Laden or other al-Qaida leaders who spoke on tape, Cronan said.
“You heard them speak during this trial,” he said. “They are dull. They were monotone. That man wasn’t. He had energy. He had passion. He was dynamic. He could fire people up.”
Abu Ghaith was brought to New York last year after his capture in Turkey. The defense has never disputed he associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but contends that he went to Afghanistan as a religious scholar concerned about oppression of Muslims and never swore allegiance to bin Laden.
Abu Ghaith claimed that he worked off talking points provided by bin Laden when speaking about al-Qaida and that he had no intention of recruiting fighters for the group — testimony Cronan called misleading.
“This man was not Osama bin Laden’s robot,” he said. “He was not his puppet. … He was no accidental terrorist.”