NEW YORK – Osama bin Laden’s hours in a dark Afghanistan cave the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks were brought to light when his son-in-law testified in his own defense at his terrorism trial, portraying the al-Qaida leader as worried and apprehensive as he contemplated how America would respond.
The son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, said the al-Qaida leader asked him hours after the attacks what he thought would happen next.
“Politically, I said, America, if it was proven that you were the one who did this, will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of the Taliban,” Abu Ghaith said he told him.
Bin Laden responded: “You’re being too pessimistic,” Abu Ghaith recalled in a discussion that he said went late into the night.
He said bin Laden had sent a messenger to pick him up earlier on Sept. 11 from a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he had watched the news unfold on television. He said bin Laden told him: “We are the ones who did it.”
He said he had met bin Laden only six or seven times previously before he was brought to the cave in a rough mountainous area.
The surprise testimony Wednesday by Abu Ghaith seemed to soften the image of the one-time Kuwaiti teacher and preacher known for fiery anti-American rhetoric on widely circulated post-attack videos until a prosecutor took his turn, eliciting damaging admissions from the 48-year-old defendant before showing a videotape on which Abu Ghaith spoke and included a hijacked plane slamming into a World Trade Center tower.
Questioned by defense lawyer Stanley Cohen and later by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara, the bearded Abu Ghaith testified that bin Laden seemed worried that night. The next morning, Abu Ghaith said, he saw bin Laden with an al-Qaida military leader, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at breakfast, and bin Laden invited him to join them.
He said bin Laden told him: “Now, after these events ... it’s a no-brainer to predict what is going to happen. What you expected may actually happen. And I want to deliver a message to the world. And Dr. Ayman also wants to deliver a message. I want you to deliver that message.”
Within two hours, the four men were posing in front of a rocky backdrop as Abu Ghaith spoke using what he said were “bullet points” provided by bin Laden that mixed verses from the Quran with justification for the terrorist attacks.
It was a position that would bring the onetime imam infamy as well as a place in the inner circle of the world’s most wanted terrorists and eventually to federal court in Manhattan, where he was brought after his capture last year in Jordan.
Abu Ghaith was the final witness in his trial on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. Closing arguments were scheduled for Monday.
The testimony was a rare gambit by the defense, a last-ditch effort to counter a mountain of evidence against Abu Ghaith, including an alleged confession and the video showing him sitting beside bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001, and another in which he warned Americans that “the storm of airplanes will not abate.” The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but it contends he was recruited as a religious teacher and orator, and had no role in plotting more attacks.
On cross-examination, though, Abu Ghaith admitted that he sent his pregnant wife, six daughters and a son to Kuwait while he went to Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2001, after hearing inside and outside al-Qaida training camps that something big was going to happen soon.
Ferrera mocked Abu Ghaith’s statement that he stayed and helped bin Laden for two weeks after Sept. 11 because the conditions in Afghanistan were tense and he had no way to travel.
“You are telling this jury that you made a speech in which you called on people to terrorize the infidels because you didn’t have a personal car?” he said, drawing from one juror a smile and a nod to a fellow juror.
“I don’t understand the question,” Abu Ghaith responded.
Testifying through an Arabic interpreter, the Kuwaiti-born defendant seemed relaxed, wearing a blue shirt, open at the collar, beneath a charcoal-colored jacket.
He testified he first met bin Laden when the al-Qaida leader, who was living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, summoned him in June 2001 after hearing he was a preacher from Kuwait. He took bin Laden’s daughter as an additional wife years after 9/11.
The defendant said that videos he made warning of more attacks on Americans were based on “quotes and points by Sheik Osama.” He testified his videotaped sermons were religious in nature, and meant to encourage Muslims to fight oppression.
Abu Ghaith said he wasn’t involved in recruiting aspiring terrorists and denied allegations he had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks or the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001.
“My intention was to deliver a message, a message I believed in,” he said. “I was hoping the United States would say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk and solve these problems,’ but America was going on and doing what I expected them to do.”
His lawyers said they were hopeful that another part of Abu Ghaith’s testimony, that he had met self-professed Sept. 11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, would cause the federal judge overseeing the trial to reconsider his decision to exclude Mohammed from testifying via videotape from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ferrera zeroed in on Abu Ghaith’s testimony that he accepted an invitation to meet with bin Laden on Sept. 11 because the al-Qaida leader was a sheik who deserved respect, along with his admission that he was aware bin Laden’s organization was behind earlier terrorist attacks against Americans abroad.
“Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans,” the prosecutor asked, “you met with him to be polite?”