Massacres Invoked as Trial of Bin Laden's Son-In-Law Kicks Off
MANHATTAN (CN) - Opening arguments for biggest terrorism trial to hit federal courts in recent memory began with a mention of the worst attacks on U.S. soil and ended with a reference to a massacre that preceded the nation's founding.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewis set the stage for his remarks with the words, "It was the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001," when nearly 3,000 people died in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On "the most important night in al-Qaida's savage history," Osama bin Laden needed a man to "rally his troops," Lewin said, as he moved behind the defense table.
"Osama bin Laden turned to this man, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the defendant," Lewin added, pointing at the accused man's back.
Attorneys for neither party mentioned that Abu Ghaith was bin Laden's son-in-law.
The prosecutor said that Abu Ghaith accepted bin Laden's offer and appeared the next morning with him and bin Laden's then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Speaking on behalf of al-Qaida, Abu Ghaith allegedly warned the United States and its allies that a "great army is gathering against you."
Lewin promised the jurors that they will see videos of him saying that the "the storms of airplanes will not abate." Another video shows him delivering a "chilling warning" to Muslims in the United States and the United Kingdom "not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises," according to the indictment.
Abu Ghaith is accused of supporting al-Qaida and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens through his propaganda alone, and not through any other operational role in any conspiracies.
Lewin asserted that Abu Ghaith's value as a propagandist was valuable enough to al-Qaida to win him inclusion on a "brevity card," which he said would have placed the suspect among the organization's top 40 members. The defense is expected to argue that this card, which lists al-Qaida members' code names, actually describes a similarly named Guantanamo Bay detainee.
Lewin invoked al-Qaida's name at least 70 times during his opening remarks, which also made more than a dozen references to bin Laden and Sept. 11, 2001.
Abu Ghaith's lead attorney Stanley Cohen said that the reminders of those attacks were designed to appeal to the jurors' emotions.
"You've just been to the movies, everyone," Cohen said from the start.
The remark was an apparent nod to the instructions that U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan gave the jury, who compared opening arguments to film trailers. Just as some trailers misrepresent the movie, some arguments overstate what the evidence actually shows, Kaplan said minutes before arguments started.
"This is not Osama bin Laden," Cohen said, gesturing toward his client. "This is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He is a Muslim. He is an Arab."
Cohen also added that his client was a Kuwaiti preacher and an "ideologue," and that the subject matter of the trial would be difficult.
"We're 10 blocks from one of the worst nightmares in the history of this country," he said, referring to Manhattan Federal Court's proximity to Ground Zero.
"I will not ask you to like what [Abu Ghaith] said," Cohen remarked. "It was dumb. It was stupid."
He added that the government's 13-year investigation into Abu Ghaith spanned millions of documents, thousands of interviews, informants and wiretaps, and came up with only "words and associations, and words and associations."
Lewin said that the words and associations filmed in the videos themselves depict the commission of a crime, making a guilty verdict the only reasonable result.
Cohen likened that view with what Massachusetts "patriots" saw at the site of the Boston Massacre, one of the catalysts of the American Revolution.
The case against the massacre's alleged perpetrator, Capt. Thomas Preston, seemed similarly airtight, but the Brit's acquittal, with help from his Founding Father lawyer John Adams, stunned observers, he added.
Adams' legacy is a favorite of lawyers representing accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. The American Civil Liberties Union even named its initiative to provide detainees with pro bono attorneys the "The John Adams Project."
"Now, I'm no John Adams," Cohen said, to laughter in the court. "Everyone in this courtroom would agree."
The ponytailed defense attorney later added that his radical client was "no Capt. Preston."
But both cases require jurors to put aside any "thirst for retaliation and revenge," Cohen said.
Witness testimony begins this afternoon.