Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s hours in a dark Afghanistan cave the evening of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were brought to light when his son-in-law testified in his own defense at his terrorism trial, portraying the man as worried and apprehensive as he contemplated how the US would respond.
The son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, said bin Laden asked him hours after the attacks what he thought would happen next.
“Politically, I said, America, if it was proven that you were the one who did this, will not settle until it accomplishes two things: To kill you, and topple the state of the Taliban,” Abu Ghaith said he told him.
Bin Laden responded: “You’re being too pessimistic,” Abu Ghaith said, detailing a discussion that he said went late into the night.
He said bin Laden had sent a messenger to pick him up earlier on Sept. 11, 2001, from a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he had watched the news unfold on television.
He said bin Laden told him: “We are the ones who did it.”
He said he had met bin Laden only six or seven times before he was brought to the cave in a rough mountainous area.
The surprise testimony on Wednesday by Abu Ghaith seemed to soften the image of the one-time Kuwaiti teacher and preacher known for fiery anti-US rhetoric on widely circulated post-attack videos until a prosecutor took his turn, eliciting damaging admissions from the 48-year-old defendant before showing a videotape on which Abu Ghaith spoke that included a hijacked plane slamming into a World Trade Center tower.
Questioned by defense lawyer Stanley Cohen and later by Assistant US Attorney Michael Ferrara, Abu Ghaith testified that bin Laden seemed worried that night.
The next morning, Abu Ghaith said, he saw bin Laden with a then-al-Qaeda military leader, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at breakfast, and bin Laden invited him to join them.
He said bin Laden told him: “Now, after these events ... it’s a no-brainer to predict what is going to happen. What you expected may actually happen. And I want to deliver a message to the world. And Dr Ayman also wants to deliver a message. I want you to deliver that message.”
Within two hours, the four men were posing in front of a rocky backdrop as Abu Ghaith spoke using what he said were “bullet points” provided by bin Laden that mixed verses from the Koran with justification for the terror attacks.
It was a position that would bring the onetime imam infamy as well as a place in the inner circle of the world’s most wanted terrorists and eventually to US federal court in Manhattan, where he was brought after his capture last year in Jordan.
Abu Ghaith was the final witness in his trial on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaeda as a spokesman for the terrorist group. Closing arguments were scheduled for Monday.
The testimony was a rare gambit by the defense, a last-ditch effort to counter a mountain of evidence against Abu Ghaith, including an alleged confession and the video showing him sitting beside bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001, and another in which he warned the US that “the storm of airplanes will not abate.”
The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after the attacks, but it contends he was recruited as a religious teacher and orator, and had no role in plotting more attacks.