On September 11, 2001, just hours after hijackers deliberately crashed passenger aircraft in attacks on the United States, a Kuwaiti teacher and imam named Suleiman Abu Ghaith met Osama bin Laden inside a cave in Afghanistan.
“We are the ones who did it,” bin Laden told Abu Ghaith, before asking him the next day to use his powers of oratory to send a videotaped “message to the world,” Abu Ghaith testified on Wednesday in a surprise move at his trial on terrorism-related charges.
The video, and others like it, form the basis for the US government’s case against Abu Ghaith, who would later marry one of bin Laden’s daughters. Prosecutors say Abu Ghaith, 48, functioned as a spokesman and recruiter for bin Laden’s Islamic militant group al Qaeda and knew of plans to attack the United States in the future.
Abu Ghaith told New York federal court jurors, however, that he simply followed talking points given to him by bin Laden and never intended to promote the group’s agenda. He denied participating in any plots against Americans.
“Did you ever join al Qaeda?” his lawyer, Stanley Cohen, asked him.
“No,” said Abu Ghaith, the highest-profile bin Laden advisor to face charges in a US civilian court. His testimony, which had not been expected, came during the third week of the trial, which will conclude on Monday with closing arguments.
Abu Ghaith said he was invited to a meeting the next morning with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including bin Laden and two of his most trusted lieutenants, Egyptians Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef, a point Assistant US Attorney Michael Ferrara emphasized during cross-examination.
Ferrara questioned Abu Ghaith’s claim that he was not speaking for al Qaeda in the videos but for Muslims in general.
“Is it your testimony to this jury that when you say ‘we’ and ‘us’ in this speech, you are not referring to al Qaeda?” Ferrara asked.
“I was not speaking on behalf of al Qaeda,” Abu Ghaith said through an interpreter.
His testimony offered a rare glimpse of the al Qaeda leader’s demeanor just hours after the devastating attacks on September 11, saying he seemed nervous rather than jubilant.
“What do you expect to happen?” bin Laden asked Abu Ghaith, according to his testimony.
Abu Ghaith said he predicted that the United States would not rest until it had accomplished two things: killing bin Laden, and toppling the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
“He said, ‘You are being too pessimistic,'” Abu Ghaith told jurors.
The US military and allies ousted the Taliban from government in 2001. Bin Laden was killed by US forces in May 2011 at his hideout in Pakistan.