NEW YORK — A federal jury in New York has convicted Kuwaiti-born imam Sulaiman Abu Ghaith on terrorism charges for his role as an al-Qaida spokesman.
The jury of nine women and three men found Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, guilty of providing material support to al-Qaida and conspiring to kill Americans. He is the highest-ranking aide to bin Laden to be tried in a U.S. civilian court.
Prosecutors screened video of Abu Ghaith sitting next to bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In another video, from October 2001, Abu Ghaith threatened that the "storm" of airplanes against Britain and the U.S. would not stop.
Last week, Abu Ghaith unexpectedly took the stand in his own defense, denying that he recruited for al-Qaida or knew of terrorism plots in advance. Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, he said his role was a religious one of inspiring Muslims to throw off oppressors.
He told of how he first went to Afghanistan in June 2001 after being invited by Osama bin Laden, who had heard of his preachings in Kuwait. He said he learned of the September 11 attacks the day after, when bin Laden summoned him to a meeting.
Jurors were not told that he has been married to bin Laden's eldest daughter Fatima since 2008 or 2009.
Following the verdict, Abu Ghaith's lead defense attorney, Stanley Cohen, said he would appeal and that the judge erred in not allowing testimony by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of the September 11 attacks. He said Sheik Mohammed would have testified, as he did in a deposition released to the public, that Abu Ghaith had no role in plotting terror.
"There's evidence this jury should have heard and could not hear, there's witnesses they should have access to and could not,” he told reporters outside the courthouse. The case, he said, was about words and associations, not deeds.
“He was speaking as an imam on behalf of the Muslim nation, and did not belong to al-Qaida, did not support al-Qaida, knew nothing about, as the government conceded, any of these events,” said Cohen.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, said the trial showed that U.S. civilian courts are well-equipped to handle terrorism cases.
"Terrorism cases fall between issues of war and issues of crime. There's no getting around that, and the challenges are somewhat different than in normal criminal justice cases,” she said. “The law has evolved since 9/11 to handle that, and the procedures and the law are able to handle these cases and this case shows that."
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that it was “appropriate that this defendant, who publicly rejoiced over the attacks on the World Trade Center, faced trial in the shadow of where those buildings once stood.”
The 48-year-old Abu Ghaith faces a possible life term in prison when he is sentenced in September.