MANHATTAN (CN) - Osama bin Laden's son-in-law took the stand Wednesday in a surprising, last-minute move by his defense team to distance him from al-Qaida and any planned terrorist attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a cleric from Kuwait who described himself through a translator as a "religious scholar and experienced orator," said bin Laden had summoned him on Sept. 11 and asked his opinion of the attacks.
He also said bin Laden asked him to teach "mercy" and provide "inspirational training" to the men being trained at various al-Qaida camps.
"It was casual and usual," he said of the meeting in a cave with his father-in-law just after the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The next day, Abu Ghaith recorded fiery videotaped speeches, praising the attacks and warning British and American Muslims to stay out of airplanes and out of high-rise buildings because the "storm of airplanes" would not abate.
He said bin Laden provided him a handwritten list of "bullet points" mentioning parts of the Koran to justify the attacks.
Abu Ghaith, who is balding and sports a long, white beard, insisted that he made the statements voluntarily. "I have my own convictions that I wanted to express," he said.
He maintained that he did not know about the attacks before they happened, and only learned about it through the media later. He also said he didn't know much of the horror that transpired that morning because bin Laden's compound did not have a television.
"I had heard something could happen, but didn't know what," Abu Ghaith said.
He also testified that he respected bin Ladin and called him "sheikh" out of respect.
"I respect every person and call them by their appropriate title," he said through a translator.
Abu Ghaith is not accused of helping to plan or execute the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but that he conspired on al-Qaida's plot with failed "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid to blow up a transatlantic plane.
On the stand, he has denied having any knowledge of that attempted plot and having ever met Reid.
Describing his capture a year ago, Abu Ghaith said he was interrogated on the flight to America, and that the FBI put goggles on his eyes and ear muffs over his ears for several hours.
"I was tired," he said of the ordeal. "I felt a shortening of breath and already had claustrophobia."
The cleric also swore to the 18-member jury that he was telling the truth about his lack of knowledge of the plots, and that he never thought of himself as al-Qaida's official spokesman.
"I believe that by lying you get nowhere and your lies will be discovered," he said. "Why should I lie?"
Abu Ghaith is the highest-ranking al-Qaida member to face trial in the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to kill Americans and for providing material support to a known terrorist group.
He faces life in prison if convicted.
It was a rare opportunity for him to take the witness stand; most accused terrorists either strike plea deals or simply refuse to testify.
A day earlier, Abu Ghaith's lawyers tried to submit testimony from the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, but U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan disallowed it.
No evidence has been presented to the jury about Abu Ghaith's marriage five years ago to bin Ladin's eldest daughter, Fatima.
The trial is unfolding on the top floor of a high-rise courtroom just blocks from One World Trade Center, the former site of the World Trade Center.
The defense rested late Wednesday afternoon.
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