A onetime aspiring terrorist testified at the trial of Suleiman abu Ghaith Thursday that he saw the alleged al-Qaida spokesman at a training camp in Afghanistan in 2001 and met Osama bin Laden three times before fleeing back to the United States after 10 days.
Sahim Alwan, 41, a Yemeni-American from Lackawanna, N.Y., testified in federal court in Manhattan that he decided to cut short his trip to Afghanistan with a group of hometown friends in the spring of 2001 after watching videos of bin Laden bragging about his group's top terror successes.
"It made me realize a lot of questions I had -- who was behind the embassy bombings, the USS Cole," said Alwan, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to providing material support to a terror group and began cooperating. "I knew at that point I was in way over my head."
Abu Ghaith, 48, a Kuwaiti who married bin Laden's daughter and celebrated with him in a video the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to al-Qaida for using his rhetorical skills to try to recruit fighters.
He is not accused of planning terrorist acts, but prosecutors say he began speaking in al-Qaida camps in early 2001 and took on a higher public profile after 9/11.
Prosecutors say much of their case will be built on videos and a post-arrest "confession," but Alwan, who spent 7 years in prison, is the only witness they have named who claims to have seen abu Ghaith firsthand.
Alwan couldn't identify him in court, but recognized a photo of abu Ghaith with a bushier beard than he has now, and recalled seeing him one night talking with "a few" men in a courtyard at an al-Qaida guesthouse in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Alwan stayed briefly.
They were discussing loyalty pledges to bin Laden, Alwan testified, and abu Ghaith said, "If you gave a pledge to bin Laden, it also fell under the pledge to Mullah Omar." Mullah Omar was the leader of the Taliban, allied with al-Qaida in 2001.
While testimony about abu Ghaith was limited, it let prosecutors play extended excerpts from the video of Alwan showing al-Qaida terror training and operations, and put into evidence three encounters of their witness with bin Laden.
The first time, Alwan said, bin Laden was asked by a recruit if anything would be happening soon. "Just know you have brothers willing to carry their souls in their hands," he said, Alwan testified.
Later, he saw bin Laden videotaped at a military training camp, and met briefly with him a third time after getting permission to leave Afghanistan.
When bin Laden asked about the condition of U.S. Muslims, Alwan said, he told him they practiced religion "more freely" than in some Muslim countries. Bin Laden, he said, "smiled" and asked how American youth felt about al-Qaida "operations." Alwan answered, "They don't think about it." The trial resumes Monday.