While on a secret flight over the Atlantic, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law “confessed” to his role in recruiting terrorists for al Qaeda, prosecutors said today in impassioned opening statements for the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.
Jurors seated just blocks from Ground Zero of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were told by U.S. attorney Nicholas Lewin that they would be played a tape of Ghaith’s confession to FBI agents, allegedly made as he was spirited to the U.S. from Jordan last year.
Ghaith, who prosecutors said appeared with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders a day after the 9/11 attacks, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and providing material support for terrorists. Ghaith was seen in a propaganda video weeks after 9/11 in which he seated next to bin Laden while the terror leader praises the attacks that caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans.
American officials have previously identified Ghaith as a longtime member of al Qaeda’s inner circle, a high-profile spokesperson for the group and the highest-ranking al Qaeda member to face trial in the U.S.
“Hours after the [9/11] attacks, Osama bin Laden turned to this man,” Lewin said while pointing to Ghaith, seated passively in a government-issued suit, “and asked him to help al Qaeda in a more public way… Osama bin Laden asked that man to deliver al Qaeda’s murderous decree to the entire world.”
Lewin also said Ghaith was responsible for sustaining al Qaeda’s “lifeblood”: new fighters for the cause.
Ghaith’s defense attorneys did not deny their client made inflammatory statements, and in fact said the jury “should” be outraged by them. But attorney Stanley Cohen said that was not enough to find Ghaith guilty of conspiring to kill Americans and that the government was "substituting alarm for evidence."
“This is not Osama bin Laden. This is not a trial about the plot of 9/11. This is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He is a husband, a father. He is an ideologue,” Cohen said. He added that while Ghaith said “terrible, horrible” words, the jury should not to be "swept away by hatred and anger" and to return the “only verdict” that is just: not guilty.
Just over a year ago, lawmakers and U.S. officials first revealed Ghaith's capture and secret transfer to New York. Ghaith had lived in Iran for years following the 9/11 attacks, but was nabbed in Turkey in January 2013 and later turned over to Jordanian authorities. From there U.S. officials took over the case on Feb. 28, 2013 and secretly brought Abu Ghaith to New York City days later.
At the time, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Ghaith’s capture was “huge.”
“This is a man who is in the inner circle of bin Laden’s al Qaeda operations and now we have him alive and he’s talking,” McCaul said.
Ghaith’s trial is expected to last through March and potentially into early April.
This report has been updated to clarify that the propaganda video in which Ghaith appeared with bin Laden did not emerge until weeks after 9/11 and that in it, bin Laden only praised the attacks but did not accept responsibility for them, as a previous version stated. Bin Laden would only do that years later.