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Ex-al-Qaida 'spokesman' tells talk with bin Laden on 9/11

This frame grab from the Saudi-owned television network

This frame grab from the Saudi-owned television network MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) shows Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the alleged spokesman of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, claiming responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States in an undated videotape broadcast by the Dubai-based MBC on April 17, 2002. Credit: Getty Images / Middle East Broadcasting Center

In dramatic testimony Wednesday at his federal terrorism trial, accused al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith said Osama bin Laden chided him for being too fearful of U.S. retaliation during a meeting in a cave on the night of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We are the ones who did it!" bin Laden told Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti imam the al-Qaida leader had summoned to his mountainous Afghanistan hideaway, a two- to three-hour drive from Kabul. But then a "worried" bin Laden asked Abu Ghaith what he thought would happen.

When Abu Ghaith predicted America would kill bin Laden and topple the Taliban, bin Laden responded, "You are being too pessimistic," Abu Ghaith testified. "I said, 'You asked my opinion, and this is my opinion.' "

Abu Ghaith, 48, who later married bin Laden's daughter, is charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiring to kill Americans and give material support to al-Qaida by using his fiery oratory to recruit and spread propaganda in video and audiotapes after Sept. 11.

He is the most senior alleged member of al-Qaida to go on trial since 2001. Prosecutors don't claim that Abu Ghaith had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, but say he justified them in a notorious Sept. 12 video with bin Laden. Prosecutors also allege he knew of a follow-up plot to detonate shoe bombs on planes that he referenced in speeches threatening a "storm of airplanes."

One of only a few accused terrorists to testify at their trials, Abu Ghaith's unexpected appearance seemed a bid to win jurors' sympathy by telling his story in his own words as the case neared its end.

Wearing a charcoal suit with an open-collared blue shirt and testifying through an Arabic translator, he was direct and composed, punctuating points with his hands and drawing only one reproach from the judge for speechifying.

Abu Ghaith attempted to portray his involvement as almost accidental. He said he went to Afghanistan to preach and teach in mid-2001, later brought his family over, ran into bin Laden by happenstance, and was asked to give spiritual speeches at al-Qaida training camps.

"Osama bin Laden told me the training camp involves . . . weapons, training, roughness, and hard life," he said. "But I need you to change that, that you put it in their heart, you change that into merciful heart."

He denied knowing about al-Qaida plots in advance, conspiring to kill Americans or ever joining al-Qaida. After being summoned on Sept. 11, Abu Ghaith said he was persuaded to give religious-themed speeches based on "bullet points" from bin Laden that were within his expertise as an imam. But he insisted he wasn't speaking for al-Qaida -- words like "us" and "we" referred to all Muslims, he said -- and was not recruiting fighters.

"There is no one who can recruit anyone except Osama bin Laden," he said. "My intent was to deliver a message I believe in -- that . . . what happened was the natural result of oppression that befell Muslims. I wanted to deliver the message that Muslims have to bear responsibility and defend themselves."

Abu Ghaith also said he hoped, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, that by delivering propaganda, he would "reduce the attacks on us . . . these poor people who had no means of defending themselves," and that "the U.S. would say let's sit down and talk and solve this problem."

On cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Ferrara asked Abu Ghaith why he met with a man he knew had been involved in terrorist acts that killed hundreds, and why he still referred to bin Laden as a "sheik" -- a term of respect.

"That is his title," Abu Ghaith answered. "And that has nothing related to the incident that happened before . . . I didn't go to meet with him to bless if he had killed hundreds of American or not. I went to meet with him to know what he want."

Abu Ghaith's testimony gave prosecutors the opportunity to replay for the jury two videos he recorded in 2001. As Abu Ghaith watched, his speech echoed in the courtroom as pictures of the smoking Twin Towers played.

"You said in that speech, 'God the almighty has ordered us to terrorize the infidels, so we terrorized the infidels.' Isn't that right?" Ferrara asked after one of the videos. During his full day of testimony, Abu Ghaith was never directly asked what he thought about Sept. 11. But a few minutes after playing the videos, Ferrara ended his cross by reminding Abu Ghaith of his claim that he wanted to deliver a message he believed in.

"You believed in the words, right?" the prosecutor asked.

"You believed in the message?"

"Yes," Abu Ghaith answered.

The defense rested after Abu Ghaith's testimony. Summations are set for Monday.

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