Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was introduced to prospective jurors on Monday at the start of his trial on charges that he conspired to kill Americans and support terrorists in his role as al-Qaida’s spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks. The government plans to show jurors during its opening statement a picture of Abu Ghaith seated with bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders on the day after Sept. 11, 2001, as they make statements about the attacks.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked Abu Ghaith to turn and face the potential jurors before asking if any knew him. None did. The judge drew silence as well when he asked if there was anyone who had never heard of al-Qaida.
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The questioning was part of a process designed to shrink a jury pool of dozens of prospective jurors to the 12 anonymous jurors and several alternates necessary before opening statements begin as early as Wednesday.
The trial, expected to last about three weeks, began a year after Abu Ghaith was brought to the United States following his capture in Jordan.
Kaplan told prospective jurors that the intent of the trial was to decide whether Abu Ghaith had conspired to kill Americans, whether he conspired to provide material support and resources to terrorists and whether he actually supplied material support and resources to terrorists.
Prosecution evidence also will include post-9/11 videos in which the charismatic bearded man promises more attacks on the United States as devastating as those that destroyed the World Trade Center. “The Americans must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, God willing, and there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life,” Abu Ghaith said in an Oct. 9, 2001, speech.
In one widely circulated propaganda video, Abu Ghaith can be seen sitting with bin Laden and current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri against a rocky backdrop. Defense lawyers for the balding and bearded defendant, who wore a beige suit to court Monday, asserted last week that some of the government’s evidence relates to a detainee at Guantanamo Bay with a similar name to Abu Ghaith rather than to the defendant, who has pleaded not guilty. Kaplan on Friday called the mistaken identity claim “utterly meritless.”
Abu Ghaith’s attorneys are also trying to enlist help from professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed to bolster the case for acquittal, though it hasn’t come fast enough for them to gain permission from Kaplan for Mohammed to testify, perhaps through a video link to Guantanamo Bay. If convicted, Abu Ghaith could face life in prison.
The Kuwaiti-born defendant was flown to the United States a year ago from Jordan, where he was captured as he headed to Kuwait, which had revoked his citizenship after 9/11.
In an affidavit, Abu Ghaith said he left Afghanistan in 2002 and entered Iran, where he was arrested and held in prisons and interrogated extensively. He said he was heading home to Kuwait to see family when his flight landed instead in Amman, Jordan, where he was handcuffed and turned over to American authorities.
Abu Ghaith is married to bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima, one of nearly two dozen children bin Laden was believed to have fathered before he was killed in Pakistan by U.S. special forces in 2011. Before heading to Afghanistan in 2000, Abu Ghaith was an imam at a Kuwaiti mosque.