NEW YORK — It took less than 13 months for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, to be arrested, put on trial and convicted of terrorism charges for being the fiery mouthpiece of al-Qaida in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
It has been 11 years since the alleged mastermind of those attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was captured and later sent to the U.S.-run military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains today with no trial in sight.
That alone shows that civilian courts, not military detention centers, are better suited to meting out justice in high-profile terrorism cases, U.S. justice officials, politicians and families of Sept. 11 victims said Wednesday after jurors found Abu Ghaith guilty of crimes that are likely to put him in prison for life. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 8.
“It is a triumph for federal courts and for our justice system,” said Sally Regenhard, whose son Christian, a firefighter, was killed responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Regenhard was one of a handful of Sept. 11 family members who attended parts of the trial, which took place just blocks from where the towers once stood.
“I believe this served as a test case for future terrorist trials in New York City,” said Regenhard, who, like most Sept. 11 family members, has been longing for what she called “an iota of justice.”
She got that, and maybe more.
Although Congress has made it impossible for now to move any Guantanamo inmates into U.S. courts, the Abu Ghaith verdict galvanized support for change.
“I think this will embolden people who want the government to rely more on civilian trials, or exclusively on civilian trials. The fact the system worked so smoothly in this case is going to be used to augment the argument,” said Aitan Goelman, a former terrorism prosecutor with the Justice Department who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing case.
U.S. officials said the verdict also disproved claims by those who support holding detainees at Guantanamo that American courts are not up to providing the security to handle international terrorism suspects. Abu Ghaith was the highest-ranking al-Qaida leader to stand trial in the United States since the 2001 attacks, according to prosecutors.
“This successful prosecution again shows that the criminal justice system is not just a valid way to prosecute al-Qaida terrorists, but a better and more reliable way,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I look forward to seeing additional prosecutions of terrorists in federal criminal courts, including some of the terrorist detainees at Guantanamo. This is long overdue.”
Abu Ghaith, 48, was not accused of involvement in the plotting or carrying out of the 2001 hijackings, but the attacks hung heavy over the 26th-floor courtroom, where spectators each morning passed through a metal detector and had their bags, briefcases and pockets searched by court marshals providing extra security.
Potential jurors were quizzed about their knowledge of al-Qaida and their personal connection with Sept. 11. Those who knew victims or had friends who knew victims were excused from serving. In the end, nine women and three men heard prosecutors describe Abu Ghaith as al-Qaida’s chief spokesman and bin Laden’s right-hand man, who was summoned to bin Laden’s mountain hide-out the night of Sept. 11, 2001, and told to deliver a speech urging violence against America.
Prosecutors showed a video of the speech, which was made Sept. 12, 2001, along with other videos of Abu Ghaith praising the hijackings and delivering rousing messages urging and threatening more attacks. His words, often punctuated by dramatic gestures and fist-waving, formed the basis for the three charges against him: conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, conspiring to provide material support or resources to terrorists, and providing material support or resources to terrorists.
In a surprising twist to an otherwise calm trial, Abu Ghaith testified in his own defense, a move seen as a last-ditch attempt by his attorney after the judge refused to allow Mohammed to testify for the defense.
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen said Mohammed would have said that Abu Ghaith was nothing more than a speech-giver who was not privy to al-Qaida plots and not part of the group’s hierarchy.
Abu Ghaith testified that he was being “polite” when he responded to bin Laden’s call to give a speech after Sept. 11. Speaking calmly through an interpreter, Abu Ghaith said his words came not from the heart but from talking points scribbled out by bin Laden.
Asked on the witness stand if he would lie to get himself out of trouble, Abu Ghaith replied: “No, no. I believe that by lying, you get nowhere.”
The jury did not believe him. It took it fewer than six hours of deliberations, after hearing nearly two weeks of testimony, to come back with three guilty verdicts.
Cohen later said he would appeal, adding in an angry statement that there was “not a chance in hell” of his client getting a fair trial in the United States.
Abu Ghaith stood in the courtroom as the verdict was read.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan warned the crowded courtroom to remain silent. “There is to be no demonstration by anyone … of any kind,” he said sternly.
The defendant showed no reaction as “guilty,” “guilty,” “guilty” were read aloud. He smiled at Cohen and blew a kiss to a friend sitting in the courtroom before he was led away.