Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and the designated spokesman for Al Qaeda, was found guilty Wednesday of conspiring to kill Americans in a case that tested the ability of the federal court system to bring terrorists to justice. He was the highest-ranking associate of the global terror network to be tried in a US civilian court.
An anonymous Manhattan jury also convicted the Kuwaiti-born cleric of two other charges related to supporting terrorist activity. He faces life in prison when he is sentenced in September.
The case has been watched carefully throughout the country, coming after years of debates over the proper venue for terror trials. The three-week trial and successful conviction of Mr. Abu Ghaith went through the criminal system without the circus atmosphere many had worried about, and experts say the trial stood in stark contrast to the military tribunals handling cases in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The conviction was hailed by Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara.
“Like the others who have faced terrorism charges in Manhattan's federal courthouse before him, Abu Ghaith received a fair trial, after which a unanimous jury rendered its verdict, justly holding him accountable for his crimes,” he said in a prepared statement after the jury’s decision. “We hope this verdict brings some small measure of comfort to the families of the victims of Al Qaeda's murderous designs.”
Abu Ghaith, a talented and rousing speaker, had gone to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 to observe the Islamic rule of the Taliban government. His public speaking abilities were noticed by bin Laden, who invited the cleric to preach to his Al Qaeda recruits.
Then, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, bin Laden summoned him to a remote mountain cave, asking the cleric to help spread Al Qaeda’s message.
Abu Ghaith described the meeting with bin Laden when he unexpectedly took the stand in his own defense last week, evoking audible gasps in the courtroom.
“He said, ‘Come in, sit down,’ ” Abu Ghaith testified last Thursday about his meeting with bin Laden. “He said, ‘Did you learn about what happened?’ ” He then testified that Al Qaeda’s head told him, “We are the ones who did it.”
On the morning of Sept. 12, bin Laden asked him to be the network’s spokesman. “I want to deliver a message to the world – I want you to deliver that message,” bin Laden told him. Abu Ghaith then appeared in a video with bin Laden and two other Al Qaeda leaders, praising the attacks and promising more to come.
The prosecution presented a number of videos in which the network’s new spokesman urges Muslims to “terrorize the infidels.”
“There are thousands of young Muslims who look forward to die for the sake of Allah,” Abu Ghaith says in one of the videos. “The storm of airplanes will not stop.” He testified that bin Laden had provided him with phrases to use in his messages.
In 2008, the cleric married bin Laden's eldest daughter, Fatima.
The defense had maintained that Abu Ghaith was merely a theologian and minister who, though agreeing with the network’s goals, never provided material support for terror activities or conspired to kill Americans.
The jury agreed with prosecutors, however, who said these messages were essential for bringing in new recruits and suicide bombers into the organization.
“A jury unanimously found that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith not only conspired to provide, and actually provided, material support to Al Qaeda, but also conspired to kill Americans,” Mr. Bharara said in his statement. “He was more than just Osama bin Laden's propaganda minister. Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghaith was using his position in Al Qaeda's homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to Al Qaeda in the cause of murdering more Americans."