Yesterday’s verdict came after six hours of deliberation over two days in the case against Kuwaiti imam Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the highest-ranking al-Qaeda figure to face trial on US soil since the 2001 attacks.
As the verdict was read, Abu Ghaith remained composed as he had throughout the trial. Just before he was led out of the courtroom, he turned toward a spectator – a longtime friend from Kuwait – and smiled.
In a statement, US Attorney Preet Bharara said he hoped the verdict brought some comfort to victims of al-Qaeda.
“He was more than just Osama bin Laden’s propaganda minister,” Mr Bharara said. “Within hours of 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.”
Defence attorney Stanley Cohen said his client would appeal. Asked about Abu Ghaith, he said: “He was stoic. He was at ease. He has confidence this is not the end but the beginning.”
Abu Ghaith had testified during a three-week trial that he answered bin Laden’s request in the hours after the attacks to speak on the widely circulated videos used to recruit new followers for suicide missions, such as the zealots who hijacked four planes on 9/11.
“The storm of airplanes will not stop,” Abu Ghaith warned in an October 2001 video that was played for the jury.
Also shown repeatedly to the jury during the trial were frames of a video made the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers that showed Abu Ghaith seated next to bin Laden and two other top al-Qaeda leaders as they tried to justify the attacks.
The charges – conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiring to provide support to al-Qaeda and providing support to al-Qaeda – carry a potential life penalty. Abu Ghaith will be sentenced in September.
In closing arguments, Assistant US Attorney John Cronan had underscored the importance of Abu Ghaith’s post-9/11 status.
“Going to that man was the very first thing Osama bin Laden did on September 11, after the terror attacks,” he said. “The defendant committed himself to al-Qaeda’s conspiracy to kill Americans, and worked to drive other people to that conspiracy.”
He added: “During the most important period of time in al-Qaeda’s savage history, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was Osama bin Laden’s principal messenger. He used his fiery oratory to incite al-Qaeda’s growing army of terror in this war with America.”
Captured in Jordan last year and brought to New York, Abu Ghaith actively participated in his trial. He listened to testimony and arguments through headphones linked to an Arabic translator.
Taking the witness stand, he calmly denied he was an al-Qaeda recruiter and claimed his role was a religious one aimed at encouraging all Muslims to rise up against their oppressors. He insisted he agreed to meet with bin Laden in a cave on the night of 11 September out of respect for his standing as a sheik.
“Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, you met with him to be polite, correct?” prosecutor Michael Ferrara asked on cross-examination.
“I didn’t go to meet with him to bless if he had killed hundreds of Americans or not. I went to meet with him to know what he wanted,” Abu Ghaith said.
His lawyer argued there was “zero evidence” that the 48-year-old former teacher knew of the conspiracies. Citing the videos of his client, Mr Cohen warned jurors not to let prosecutors “intimidate you and to frighten you into returning verdicts not based upon evidence, but fear.”
Those videos, though, emerged as the centerpiece of the government’s case. One features Abu Ghaith preaching over horrific footage of a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers.
Another showed the defendant looking at bin Laden admiringly as the al-Qaeda leader boasted that he knew the 9/11 attack would make both towers fall.