By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, urged al Qaeda recruits en route to a training camp in Afghanistan to pledge their lives to bin Laden a few months before September 11, 2001, a government witness told jurors on Thursday.
Sahim Alwan, 41, of Lackawanna, New York, testified in federal court in New York that Abu Ghaith spoke to the al Qaeda recruits months before hijacked jets attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing 3,000 people. Abu Ghaith is on trial for conspiring to kill Americans.
Alwan said he was at an al Qaeda training camp in spring, 2001 and saw Abu Ghaith one night at a guest house in Kandahar, urging several men to provide a “bayat,” or pledge to bin Laden. He said he was already having second thoughts about joining Al Qaeda. But he stayed in Afghanistan long enough to meet Osama bin Laden, who asked him what American Muslims thought about suicide bombers.
Prosecutors say Abu Ghaith, 48, was a critical al Qaeda spokesman and recruiter after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He is one of the highest-ranking figures linked to al Qaeda to face a civilian jury on terrorism-related charges since the attacks.
His lawyer has said there is no evidence against him.
Alwan was arrested in 2002 and ultimately sentenced to 9-1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He was released from prison in July 2010 after agreeing to cooperate with the government in another investigation, and is now in the cell phone business, he said.
Alwan recognized an old picture of Abu Ghaith, but could not definitively identify him when a prosecutor asked Alwan to stand and identify anyone in the courtroom he remembered from Afghanistan.
“I can’t say 100 percent for sure,” he said, after looking at Abu Ghaith.
After the incident in spring, 2001, Alwan said he never saw Abu Ghaith again except on television following the September 11 attacks.
Alwan described a journey that began in a Lackawanna mosque and included a motorcycle ride into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Once in the Kandahar guesthouse, he had second thoughts after seeing a video of the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.
“I knew at that time I was in way over my head,” he said.
Alwan also said he met bin Laden three times, the last being a chilling one-on-one sit-down at another guesthouse Alwan stayed at on his way out of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden asked how American Muslims felt about suicide bombings and how they were treated in the United States, Alwan said. Alwan replied that they were “more free” than in some Muslim countries.
“He kind of smiled,” Alwan said. Bin Laden then asked, “Do you need us to clean your passport?”
Abu Ghaith’s attorneys will cross-examine Alwan on Monday.
Another government witness, Saajid Badat is also expected to testify on Monday from Britain via video feed. Badat plotted with Richard Reid, the man who became known as the shoe bomber after his attempt to detonate explosives on a flight to Miami in 2002.
Also Thursday, David Karnes, a soldier who said he was in the first team of U.S. Army special forces in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, testified that his group confiscated a coded card with both bin Laden and Abu Ghaith’s name on it.
Prosecutors have said that card suggests Abu Ghaith was among the top tier of al Qaeda leadership.
Prosecutors say Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti imam, spent time in Afghanistan with bin Laden soon after the attacks and recorded several statements threatening further attacks against Americans, including one that said “the storm of airplanes will not stop.”
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over Abu Ghaith’s trial, told sketch artists on Wednesday that they were not allowed to draw Karnes, 41. No sketch artists were in court on Thursday.
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 David Gregorio)