NEW YORK (Reuters) - Before the smoke had cleared from the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden had asked a fiery Kuwaiti teacher and imam to recruit more fighters for al Qaeda, a U.S. prosecutor said in closing arguments of the man’s trial on Monday.
The preacher, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, then used his position as an al Qaeda spokesman to conspire to kill Americans, the U.S. government says. It says Abu Ghaith also provided and conspired to provide material support and resources to terrorists.
“This man’s purpose was to strengthen al Qaeda and solidify its future,” the prosecutor, John Cronan, said in closing the government’s case, repeatedly pointing at Abu Ghaith, who sat a few feet away.
Abu Ghaith faces life in prison if convicted by a New York federal court jury, which is scheduled to begin deliberations on Tuesday.
Abu Ghaith’s lawyer, Stanley Cohen, said in his closing argument that the government had no evidence of conspiracy and said its case was “an invitation to unsupported and outrageous speculation.”
Abu Ghaith, 48, is one of the highest-ranking figures linked to al Qaeda to face a civilian jury on terrorism-related charges since the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York’s World Trade Center, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Abu Ghaith later married one of the daughters of al Qaeda founder bin Laden, who was killed in May 2011 by U.S. forces at his hideout in Pakistan.
Prosecutors contend that Abu Ghaith knew about a shoe bomb plot attempted by Briton Richard Reid in late 2001.
During their closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors showed jurors several videos and transcripts in which Abu Ghaith praised the September 11 hijackers and beckoned young Muslims to join the fight. In one, from October 2001, he warned that “The storm of airplanes will not stop.”
“It’s no surprise that a man like that knew exactly what was coming from al Qaeda,” Cronan said.
Cronan emphasized how Abu Ghaith repeatedly used words such as “we,” “us” and “our” when discussing al Qaeda. In one, Abu Ghaith, who testified last week that he had not joined al Qaeda, said “Our martyrdom personnel are ready and eager to carry out operations against American and Jewish targets.”
“Without people like him, al Qaeda dies with every suicide attack,” Cronan said.
In closing arguments for the defense, Cohen accused the government of trying to overwhelm jurors with videos of Abu Ghaith ranting about attacks, but not providing evidence that he knew of any plots against the United States.
“It was designed to prevent you from looking at the evidence or the lack of evidence,” Cohen told the jurors.
Cohen also questioned the integrity of several government witnesses, including an expert on al Qaeda, Evan Kohlmann. Kohlmann, Cohen said, is unqualified and had hardly any familiarity with Abu Ghaith, whom the government argued became a leader in al Qaeda after September 11, 2001.
“The best evidence the defense has is the government’s own witnesses,” Cohen said.
Cohen also attacked Saajid Badat, a convicted former al Qaeda operative who testified for the government from an undisclosed location in Britain. Badat said he had helped plan the shoe bomb plot with Reid, but could not recall meeting Abu Ghaith.
Cohen also said the government has not sought to extradite Badat to the United States, where he is under indictment for his role in the shoe bomb plot, because it needs him to testify in terrorism trials.
“Why would they?” Cohen said. “He’s their boy.”
Abu Ghaith’s messages on videos, Cohen said, “remain words, words and associations, and that’s it.”
In a rebuttal, another prosecutor, Michael Ferrara, told jurors that Cohen was trying to distract them. The moment Abu Ghaith agreed to help bin Laden, he was guilty, Ferrara said.
“Don’t let (Abu Ghaith) run from the evidence,” Ferrara said.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 98-cr-01023.
Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Grant McCool