On Sept. 12, 2001, he became the voice of terrorism -- squatting next to Osama bin Laden and an AK-47 in front of a cave in Afghanistan, head wrapped in a turban, railing about jihad in Arabic with apparent fervor in a video endlessly looped on TV after Sept. 11.
But last week, in court testimony providing a rare look at al-Qaida in the hours after the attacks, Sulaiman abu Ghaith told the story behind the iconic video -- portraying himself as a family man, devout cleric and reluctant recruit summoned to a mountain camp bristling with guards, where an apprehensive bin Laden put his persuasive powers to work.
"I want to deliver a message to the world," he said bin Laden told him. "I want you to deliver that message . . . I insist that you speak. This is your job. You are an imam, you are a speaker, and you will only discuss the religious aspect."
Abu Ghaith, 48, a charismatic Kuwaiti religious scholar who eventually married one of bin Laden's daughters, is charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiring to murder Americans and provide material support to al-Qaida by becoming a spokesman and using his oratory to spread propaganda and recruit fighters.
Second suspect to testify
His testimony was only the second time an accused terrorist linked to Sept. 11 has testified at his own civilian trial. The first -- so-called 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui -- took a different approach in his 2006 death penalty trial in Virginia, telling jurors with bloodthirsty candor how he reveled in accounts of death and mayhem on Sept. 11.
"We want to inflict pain on your country," said Moussaoui, who was nonetheless spared the death penalty.
Abu Ghaith was a more controlled witness -- dressed in a sport coat (and no turban) instead of the prison jumpsuit Moussaoui wore, answering questions quickly and directly, showing no anger. And he told a subtler story, arguing he was a man who gave speeches out of religious duty, not an operative who ever ordered, committed or intended murder.
"The jury has seen a bunch of videos and a bunch of tapes, but they don't know why he made them," defense lawyer Stanley Cohen said afterward, explaining the decision to testify. "This guy's got a story to tell."
"They still have to show he was a knowing, willing participant in a conspiracy to kill Americans," Cohen added. "He was an imam, a teacher who traveled to Afghanistan for benign purposes, who got caught up in the crosshairs of history. He explained why he did what he did."
A married father of seven who taught religion in high school in Kuwait and sometimes spoke at mosques, abu Ghaith said he traveled to Afghanistan in mid-2001 to explore Taliban rule and teaching. His family followed a couple of months later.
When he met bin Laden, he said, he chose not to be judgmental about reports of his terror activities, but also declined to join al-Qaida -- agreeing only to give "spiritual" lectures at its camps. He said it was his religious duty to give "material support" to the Islamic community.
Then on Sept. 11, as he watched TV news reports in Kabul of the attacks, a messenger appeared and said the "sheik" wanted to see him. He was driven to the mountains. Bin Laden was in a cave with other al-Qaida leaders, protected by 20 to 25 armed guards. The scene was "tense" and bin Laden was "worried" -- not "happy," abu Ghaith recalled.
The two men quarreled, he said, when he predicted U.S. retribution would take down bin Laden. Bin Laden said abu Ghaith was too "pessimistic," but the next morning he called him back into his cave, said his prediction was probably a "no brainer" and asked him to build a speech around some religious "bullet points" that bin Laden would provide.
Abu Ghaith said he tried to beg off, telling bin Laden, "If you will kindly spare me that mission, it will be better." But eventually, he gave in. He said the two never spoke about whether the Sept. 11 attacks were right or wrong, but he was comfortable articulating on camera what he saw as Muslim principles about self-defense.
"I do not want to hide that I had some convictions that the nature of any conflict, whenever there is an oppression or injustice inflicted on someone that there could be possible reactions," he testified. "Those reactions could be unpredictable . . . He was of course very happy that I accepted to speak."
Denial of al-Qaida helps
Some experts, such as Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on National Security, a think tank in Manhattan, said that on balance, abu Ghaith probably helped himself by denying that he intended to commit murders, or had anything to do with any plot.
He offered a human face, she noted, and left the impression -- by refusing to join al-Qaida, and by saying that he made additional tapes because bin Laden wouldn't give him transportation out of the mountains for a few weeks after Sept. 12 -- that he was not fully onboard with al-Qaida's mission.
"He made it clear he shared their feelings about the oppression of Muslims, but backed away from being operationally involved," she said. " . . . The jury will have to define what it means to participate in a group, and how much do you have to participate to be guilty."
Legal experts cautioned that, although in theory abu Ghaith might have assisted al-Qaida without sharing its intent to murder Americans, the deck is stacked pretty heavily against him.
Abu Ghaith virtually admitted to the material support charge, said James Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham University School of Law, and the violent rhetoric he used on tapes -- warning that "a great army is gathering against you" -- may cinch a conviction on the more serious charge of conspiracy to kill Americans, which could carry a life sentence.
"He can say his intent was only to explain Muslim principles, but he joined knowing their goals," Cohen said. "Even if his intent was a little different -- it would have to be dramatically different, the difference between night and day, not dusk and twilight."
Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Monday.