Terror on Trial: What 9/11 Families Learned in Court

By Phil Hirschkorn Huffington Post

During the trial of al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith in Manhattan federal court that ended last week, a special group spectators went largely unnoticed. They sat in the second row just twenty feet behind the defendant.

“This man is evil from his head down to his toes,” said Rosemary Cain, one of half a dozen 9/11 family members who attended part of the three-week trial. “Sitting there and seeing that man in person — that was really a jarring experience.”

Her son, George, 35, was a New York City firefighter who died in the World Trade Center collapse. Twelve-and-half years later, upon meeting you, Rosemary is still quick to draw a wallet-sized, laminated photo of George smiling, wearing his Ladder 7 helmet.

“He’s part of the whole mindset of evil that murdered my son and three thousand innocent souls,” Cain said of Abu Ghaith after the jury returned its verdict, finding him guilty of participating in al Qaeda’s global terror conspiracy and providing the group material support, namely himself, by delivering videotaped speeches for al Qaeda starting September 12, 2001.

This was the first complete federal trial of a close aide to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden since a jury convicted four men for the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa 13 years ago. It was also the first U.S. prosecution of an al Qaeda insider since bin Laden was killed three years ago.

“I just felt compelled to be there and see it first hand. It’s history. But I did for my son more than anything else,” Cain said.

The case highlighted, once again, the efficiency of trials over the slow-moving military commissions for detainees held at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Bay, Cuba. Since 9/11, more than 80 foreign terror suspects have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses in federal court, according to a tally by Human Rights First, with the most serious defendants receiving the life imprisonment Abu Ghaith faces when he is sentenced in September.

Meanwhile, the ever evolving parallel legal system at Guantanamo has resulted in only eight convictions, and most of those detainees, like former bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan, from Yemen, are living free in their home countries after being deported essentially for time served when their cases were resolved.

Guantanamo gridlock has endlessly delayed proceedings for five men with pending military charges for 9/11, led by alleged plot architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After a decade in U.S. custody, KSM and his four co-defendants are not expected to face their military commission before sometime next year.

Compared to commuting from Massapequa into Manhattan, trekking to Guantanamo to observe proceedings would be an ordeal for Cain, though it is one she would be willing to undertake.

“I would be very interested,” she said, “If there ever gets to be a trial, if I’m still alive.”

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Abu Ghaith, 48, is a Kuwaiti imam who spent a year in bin Laden’s orbit from mid-2001 to mid-2002. As he explained while testifying for five hours in his own defense, he moved to Afghanistan to live under the Taliban’s strict Islamic regime. Bin Laden first persuaded him to give sermons to trainees at al Qaeda’s military camps.

Then he tasked Abu Ghaith to justify 9/11 in religious terms. Sitting outside a rocky mountain outcrop and dressed in religious robes, the imam called the attacks “a natural matter and realistic” result of “foolish” U.S. policies against Muslim nations and in support of Israel.

“We are capable of engaging in this confrontation” against Jews, Christians, and Americans, he said. In court, Abu Ghaith asserted those remarks were built around talking points bin Laden gave him.

Regardless, Assistant United States Attorney Nicholas Lewin told jurors in the trial’s opening statement, “The defendant used the murderous power of his words to try to strengthen al Qaeda.”

Prosecutors contended these taped, widely disseminated post-9/11 speeches by an authority figure were recruitment tools that attracted radicalized Muslims who wanted to kill Americans.

“His job was to help provide al Qaeda with its very lifeblood – fighters,” Lewin said. “Young men inspired to fight and to die for al Qaeda.”

Within five minutes of talking, Lewin displayed the trial’s signature image — a poster-sized “frame grab” from a video showing Abu Ghaith, with an AK-47 assault rifle by his side, seated next to bin Laden, who was next to his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and his military chief, Mohammad Atef.

In one of three videos Abu Ghaith taped in October 2001, Abu Ghaith said, “The storm of airplanes will not abate.” Prosecutors argued those words revealed he knew in advance about the shoe-bomb plot on U.S. jetliners then in the works, but since jurors did not discuss their verdict, we don’t yet know if they were convinced.

In the most direct dragging of 9/11 into the courtroom, prosecutors showed one video produced by al Qaeda’s media committee where Abu Ghaith talked over various shots of United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane, crashing into the south tower. Abu Ghaith is heard saying underneath video of the smoking TwinTowers, “God the Almighty has ordered us to terrorize the infidels, so we terrorized the infidels.”

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Ghaith fled to Pakistan and then Iran, where he married bin Laden’s daughter, in 2008, when they were under house arrest with other bin Laden associates. Now bin Laden’s son-in-law, Abu Ghaith was caught early last year after sneaking across Iran’s border into Turkey. A month later, he was in U.S. custody.

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“I have grave doubts about whether what’s happened at Guantanamo would stand up in an ordinary court of law,” said Ellen Judd, a 9/11 family member from Winnipeg, Canada, who attended the trial. She lamented not only Guantanamo’s military commission woes but also the mistreatment of prisoners in the camp’s early days and when prisoners were held in secret sites overseas.

“The thing to be learned from Guantanamo is we need to do it some other way, and I know there are many people who think this is the way to do it,” Judd said of civilian trials.

Judd, an anthropology professor at the University of Manitoba who is teaching at Columbia this semester, watched Abu Ghaith’s case because her partner, Christine Egan, 55, and her brother-in-law, Michael Egan, 51, both died after the second hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center’s south tower. On that clear blue sky morning, Christine was enjoying the view and having coffee while visiting Michael in his office at Aon, the insurance firm, on the 105th floor.

Judd credits the open trial for holding Abu Ghaith accountable, but her presence on behalf of the Egans demonstrated a shortcoming in the top charge – conspiracy to kill Americans. The 2,977 names of 9/11 victims etched into the memorial pools at the World Trade Center represent more than 90 countries, including a dozen people from Canada.

“In any conceivable act that he [Abu Ghaith] was promoting that involved a ‘storm of airplanes,’ he knew with certainty he was also going to be killing non-Americans,” Judd said. “What about everybody else?”

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Abu Ghaith looks different than he did in those decade-old propaganda videos. He is balder, his bread trimmer and grayer. He sat quietly at the defense table wearing a suit and headphones to hear the simultaneous Arabic translation.

The windows of the 26th floor courtroom offer a splendid southern view of the Brooklyn and Verrazano bridges and the new One World Trade Center that rises the same height as the fallen Twin Towers, plus 400 feet with its spire. Federal marshals kept the shades drawn when court was in session.

As in previous al Qaeda trials, potential jurors were promised anonymity – only the jury clerk knew their real names. A pool of 44 qualified for voir dire after filling out questionnaires. All of them had heard of al Qaeda, but none had heard of the defendant.

To bolster their argument that Abu Ghaith had been an important al Qaeda insider, prosecutors showed the jury pink “code cards” recovered by soldiers near the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar. The Arabic cards designated numbers instead of names for radio communications among al Qaeda soldiers. On one card, for example, bin Laden (“Sheikh Usama”) was #95, al Zawahiri (“The Doctor”) was #145, Atef (“Abu Muhammad al-Masri”) was #115, and Abu Ghaith was #40.

Defense attorney Stanley Cohen tried to minimize Abu Ghaith’s role with al Qaeda and to humanize his client by describing him as a husband, father, imam, and teacher.

“I will not ask you to like what he said,” Cohen told the jury in his opening statement and called Abu Ghaith’s post-9/11 statements “dumb” and “ugly.” As he predicted, prosecutors repeatedly showed the image of the defendant seated next to bin Laden.

Cohen urged jurors to stand up to a “tide of hatred” and a “thirst” for “revenge” like the Boston Massacre jury that acquitted British captain Thomas Preston after royal troops killed five colonists at a demonstration in 1770. For the defense, Cohen said, that was an “impossible case, ” as Abu Ghaith’s turned out to be for him.

After receiving instructions from U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Kaplan, jurors spent little more than one afternoon and one hour the following morning before rending their unanimous guilty verdict.

Outside the courthouse, Cohen said Abu Ghaith was “not surprised,” and the defense did not second guess its moves, including letting the defendant testify. He said, “You hope for your day in court, and you fight on.”

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In civilian court, it’s true, only one al Qaeda member, and a minor one at that, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been convicted for the 9/11 conspiracy, eight years ago, in Virginia federal court, and his conviction has been upheld on appeal.

Mistakenly labeled the would-be 20th hijacker had he not been arrested on an immigration violation in August 2001, Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, had come to the U.S. hoping to become a hijacker-pilot for either a fifth plane on 9/11 or a second wave of attacks. But he couldn’t figure out how to fly a Cessna solo and set off alarms when he showed up at a Minnesota flight school expecting to learn how to handle Boeing 747′s.

When the jury declined to impose a death sentence — Moussaoui did not kill anyone — he began serving a life sentence at the super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.

The only other accused 9/11 conspirators in U.S. custody remain at Guantanamo but could have set at the defense table with Moussaoui. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, plot facilitator Ramzi Binalshibh, moneymen Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, trainer and flight scouter Khallad bin Attash were captured years before the Moussaoui trial began, and the evidence marshaled against Moussaoui embroiled all of them.

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Retired Queens school secretary Eileen Walsh attended the Abu Ghaith trial more days than any other 9/11 family member and saw the inflammatory tapes played over and over. Her son, Michael Brennan, 27, was a firefighter with Ladder 4, part of the Hell’s Kitchen firehouse that lost 15 men on 9/11.

“It is a little painful at times? Yes. But the most painful thing has already happened. He was killed. But to bury my head in the sand and think this is not going to happen again, or there is not terrorism around, I think is the worst thing to do,” Walsh said.

She considered Abu Ghaith’s testimony a “very rehearsed” attempt to suggest bin Laden had “coerced” him into making statements. She didn’t buy it. Abu Ghaith seemed to her like a motivational speaker for Al Qaeda, Inc.

“As a learned man and religious man,” she said, “he still made the choice to do these tapes, which were horrific.”

Abu Ghaith’s trial is the first of three major terrorism trials on the Manhattan federal court terror docket this year. Coming later this month is the trial of the radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, who had quite a jihadist following in England (including Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid) and is accused of organizing a terror training camp in Oregon. That trial will be followed in November by the prosecution of a trio of men who allegedly comprised the UK cell of al Qaeda around the time of the embassy bombings. Two of them were extradited to New York with Abu Hamza in October 2012 while the final defendant, known as Anas al-Libi, was captured in Tripoli and brought to New York last October. This means from the quartet’s time in U.S. custody to their civilian trial verdicts should be roughly two years. That’s a far faster pace than military commissions at Guantanamo, a venue that leaves 9/11 families waiting for justice.

“I must say initially, I thought they should be tried at Guantanamo, and then when I see how long it has taken, I don’t know,” Walsh said of the 9/11 defendants. “It is frustrating.”

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This week, Attorney General Eric Holder came to New York to congratulate the prosecution team under U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for its quick conviction, as Holder put it, “in full view of many of those who lost loved ones in the attack.” Holder’s Justice Department counts Abu Ghaith among more than 165 terrorism-related convictions achieved in federal civilian courts since the Obama administration took power.

“This shows that the pursuit of justice against terrorist defendants need not present an either-or choice between our values and our security,” Holder said. “The system is both tried and tested. Its strength is founded on more than two centuries of rigorous precedent and deep experience, and so we will continue to rely on it.”

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