Witness in NYC Terror Trial May Have Missed His Mark
MANHATTAN (CN) - Though he spoke about how Osama bin Laden hugged him for agreeing to blow up a U.S. airplane, a government witness had little to say about the Egyptian preacher whose fate his testimony was meant to help seal.
Bin Laden "asked if I knew the significance of this operation, then he answered his own question," Saajid Badat testified on Monday via closed-circuit television from London. "He said the Amerian economy was like a chain: You break one link, you bring the whole thing down."
For bin Laden, that link was the "airline industry," Badat said.
Several juries in the United States and Britain have heard Badat discuss his aborted plan to join "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid in a plot to take down a flight to Miami shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Badat has had to recount this story repeatedly under his cooperation agreement with the British government that cut short his 13-year sentence, but he refuses to appear in person in the United States where he faces an active indictment for the same crime.
Badat's televised testimony last month helped convict bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who starred in a recruitment video warning of a "storm of airplanes" against the United States.
The current target of Badat's testimony, however, is not accused of playing a role in any airline plots.
In fact, Mustafa Kamal Mustafa, better known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, is charged with conduct stemming before the 9/11 attacks.
Prosecutors accuse him of giving Yemeni hostage-takers a satellite phone used to abduct British and American tourists, inspiring a failed effort to set up a jihadist training camp in Bly, Ore., and recruiting Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan years before the U.S. war there.
On Monday, prosecutors pointed a camera at Mustafa in the Manhattan courthouse so Badat could identify him as the same man who delivered two sermons that he attended in the late 1990s.
"I saw during the sermon that [Mustafa] had no arms, or prosthetic arms," Badat said.
Mustafa, who reportedly lost both forearms and an eye while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, plans to take the stand himself and speak about how he sustained those injuries, his defense attorney said during the start of trial. Denying that their client took part in any violent plots, the defense contends that Mustafa is being prosecuted for his radical opinions.
Badat could not remember much about the content of the sermons he heard at Mustafa's former Finsbury Park mosque, apart a scholarly dispute over a rarely celebrated Islamic holiday and some "shouting."
London tabloids then, and now, printed old pictures of Mustafa waving his hook-shaped prosthesis in news reports about the incendiary speeches that caused him to be prosecuted under British hate-speech laws.
In the New York courtroom, Mustafa now wears a different prosthesis that allows him to scribble notes to his attorney. His beard is similar to, though grayer than, the one he wore in London.
Badat, on the other hand, now looks far different from the FBI photograph depicting him with a scraggly beard and wavy hear. Clean-shaven on Monday, Badat wore a conservative gray suit and sported a shaved head as he sat for the video camera.
In court papers, prosecutors indicated that they would use Badat's testimony to link Mustafa to Feroz Abbasi, a fellow Brit whom U.S. forces captured in Afghanistan. Badat testified that he met Abbasi inside al-Qaida's al-Farouk training camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but he did not tie the two men on Monday.
Although prosecutors contend that such a connection would prove terror recruitment, defense attorneys have noted that the U.S. released Abbasi in 2005 after failing to charge him for years with a crime.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick McGinley also asked Badat about a video found in Mustafa's property that contained footage from one of his former training camps. The footage celebrated the destruction of the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship al-Qaida destroyed in a suicide attack off the coast of Yemen.
Mustafa's attorney Jeremy Schneider pressed Badat to agree that he was the one who inspired that attack by proposing that al-Qaida send a "small boat to crash into a larger ship."
Badat acknowledged that he made that suggestion - and that al-Qaida did just that - but he emphasized that he told law enforcement: "I don't know if [the Cole bombing] was my fault."
Before trial, Mustafa's attorneys had unsuccessfully sought to exclude evidence involving al-Qaida plots that their client is not accused of aiding. They have argued that jihad in the 1990s meant opposing Muslim oppression in Bosnia and the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that prosecutors could show motive by showing jurors Mustafa's endorsements and praise of violence against the United States, regardless of when they were said.
"Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center," Mustafa told a journalist in footage shown to jurors.
Mustafa's attorney Jeremy Schneider emphasized that Badat confessed to feeling "jubilant" and bowed in a "prostration of gratitude" on Sept. 11 when he saw the attacks unfold from Belgium.
Shortly after, Badat said that he met with the alleged mastermind of those attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to brainstorm new plots. Mohammed pulled out an almanac of the world's tallest buildings and crossed out the Twin Towers.
Schneider asked: "And you laughed at that joke,".
"I had just agreed to do a shoe bombing," Badat replied. "That was the mental state I was in."
Calling his thinking at the time "twisted," Badat said he originally became interested in armed training after learning about and then witnessing the destruction of Muslim villages in Bosnia. He added that he originally thought of the concept as self-defense rather than terrorism against civilians, and that he spent years in Afghanistan training camps before radicalizing.
He has been reforming ever since his father stopped him from following through on the shoe-bomb plot.
"I knew that I would always be considered a risk to society unless I proved that I had abandoned those views," he said.
His first day of testimony against Mustafa ended with him agreeing that he originally felt "envy" for the 9/11 hijackers and believing that "it was my time now." Cross-examination is expected to pick up from that point on Tuesday.