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Trial opens for alleged al-Qaida spokesman

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

Prosecutors began the terrorism trial of alleged al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman abu Ghaith Wednesday by admitting that he had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, but then put the hijackings front-and-center as they opened their case in federal court in Manhattan.

Reminding jurors more than 20 times of Sept. 11, 2001, prosecutor Nicholas Lewin said that while "our buildings were still burning" abu Ghaith agreed to use his rhetorical skills to recruit for al-Qaida and appeared in a notorious Sept. 12 video celebrating with Osama bin Laden, who is his father-in-law.

"Literally moments after the attacks of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden turned to this man," Lewin said. "Osama bin Laden asked this man to deliver al-Qaida's murderous decree to the entire world. What did the defendant do? He agreed."

"You don't sit outside a cave on Sept. 12, 2001, with the most wanted man on earth," the prosecutor added, "unless you are on the inside of al-Qaida at the very, very top."

Abu Ghaith, 48, who married one of bin Laden's daughters and spent years in Iran before his capture last year, is one of the most senior al-Qaida figures to be tried in a civilian U.S. court. He is charged with conspiracy to kill Americans and provide material support to al-Qaida by giving fiery rants to try to attract followers.

In a shot from the Sept. 12 video shown to jurors, he appears squatting to bin Laden's right, with a bushy black beard and turban. In court, he cut a different figure -- with a well-trimmed beard, reading glasses, dark suit and blue tie.

His lawyer, Stanley Cohen, complained that prosecutors were trying to connect the case to Sept. 11 and other al-Qaida attacks without showing abu Ghaith's involvement to sow fear and "make it impossible to do justice."

He described abu Ghaith as a "talker" and "an ideologue" who said things that were "dumb" and "make you flinch," but argued that anti-American rhetoric was not enough to prove the charge without tying him to particular attacks.

"After 13 years, it comes down to words and association and words and association," Cohen said, comparing abu Ghaith to the British captain at the Boston Massacre in 1770 who was eventually acquitted by an American jury despite his presence at the scene.

Lewin did not tell jurors that abu Ghaith was bin Laden's son-in-law, describing him as a well-known religious speaker in Kuwait who joined bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001. Speaking at al-Qaida training camps, abu Ghaith impressed the terror leader and was asked to become a global recruiter the afternoon of the attacks.

"This is the call for jihad summoning you," abu Ghaith said on the Sept. 12 video. "Jihad against the Americans." In the following months, Lewin said, abu Ghaith began to warn that the "storm of airplanes" against the United States was going to continue.

He said prosecutors believe abu Ghaith knew of the impending plot by British shoe bomber Richard Reid to bring down a plane, although he admitted that a plotter who will testify for the government would not be able to link abu Ghaith to the planning.

Lewin also urged jurors to not underestimate abu Ghaith's role.

"The defendant's job was a critical one, but it was not to plan terrorist attacks . . . and it was not to carry out terrorist attacks," he said. "His job was to help provide al-Qaida with its very lifeblood: fighters, personnel, young men inspired to fight and to die."

The trial resumes Thursday.

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