MANHATTAN (CN) – Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith made new threats minutes before a federal judge sentenced him to life in prison this morning.
“The same moment that you shackling my hands and intend to bury me alive, you are at the same time unleashing the hands of hundreds of Muslim youth,” he told the court, after opening his speech with an Islamic prayer.
“Soon, very soon, the whole world will see the end of theater plays known as trials,” Abu Ghaith added.
Although his attorney minutes earlier described Abu Ghaith as “basically a deer in the headlights” of al-Qaida, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan said that Abu Ghaith’s bluster gave the lie to that argument.
“You, sir, are as far from a deer in the headlights as anyone I have ever encountered,” Kaplan said, addressing Abu Ghaith directly.
The Kuwaiti cleric appeared in a propaganda video next to his late father-in-law Osama bin Laden and then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
While Abu Ghaith played no role in those attacks, he had heard before that date that “something big” was going to take place, and he left his pregnant wife in Kuwait days before the attacks to prepare for the fallout in Afghanistan.
“I believed in the days or so to come, I would have the opportunity to offer something,” Abu Ghaith testified. “I had something to offer in the time to come.”
Summoned personally by bin Laden after the attacks, Abu Ghaith delivered a televised sermon the next morning, with an AK-47 by his side as he tried to recruit al-Qaida fighters for more plots.
He popped up in several such videos for a little more than a year.
Al Jazeera broadcast his Oct. 9, 2001, speech warning that the “storm of airplanes will not abate.”
A communique two days later warned Muslims in the United States and Britain to stay away from tall buildings.
Kaplan at the hearing recounted another video featuring a meeting of Abu Ghaith sitting with bin Laden and other al-Qaida members talking about the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mimicking bin Laden’s hand gestures of the attacks, Kaplan placed one hand up as one of the towers and another as a plane at the point of collisions. Bin Laden said that he was the only member of the circle who knew what would happen in advance, and other people in the group swapped stories of dreams and premonitions that they claimed to have of the event.
All of the men were laughing, Kaplan recounted.
“It was funny,” the judge said, describing how the men felt about the attacks. “It was a success, the massacre.”
Federal prosecutors aired such footage repeatedly during the cleric’s nearly month-long trial, which ended with a jury entering convictions for material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals. The probation department found that there was “no fathomable reason to justify a sentence other than life.”
Inside a packed federal courthouse on Tuesday morning, Ghaith’s attorney Stanley Cohen said that his client stood convicted only of his “speech and associations.”
“You have speech, speech and more speech,” Cohen said.
He compared his client to another al-Qaida spokesman, Adel Abdel Bary, who copped to a plea with the government last week for trumpeting the 1998 attacks on two U.S. Embassies in Africa from the terrorist group’s London media office.
Bary’s plea capped his sentence at 25 years, but the Egyptian may leave prison earlier based on time he already served in a British prison.
Kaplan, who presides over both cases, has not yet accepted Bary’s plea.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan insisted that the cases were different, and he offered to explain why to the judge privately.
The extenuating evidence supporting a plea deal for Bary has not yet been made public.
Although he acknowledged that Ghaith was not “operational terrorist” or a “bomb thrower,” Cronan added that “al-Qaida replenishes its supply of suicide operatives” because of men like him.
Before he was captured in Turkey, Abu Ghaith spent 10 years in an Iranian prison, where he claims he was tortured. He said his first wife divorced him there because she believed he was dead. He married bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima, while still in prison there.
Abu Ghaith also spent his Iranian incarceration writing a book that renounced al-Qaida’s “culture of killing,” and urged would-be jihadists to focus their efforts building state institutions, Cohen said.
By the end of sentencing, Kaplan remained unconvinced that anything had lessened Ghaith’s “commitment to this murderous agenda.”
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