The first time most Americans saw Sulaiman Abu Ghayth was in a grainy videotape released shortly after 9-11. He was sitting cross-legged, in a white cap and a brown robe, on a stone outcropping somewhere high in the Afghan mountains. Sitting immediately to his left was Osama bin Laden.
At the time, teams of volunteers and emergency responders were still sifting through the rubble in Lower Manhattan. And Abu Ghayth was promising fresh horrors. A “storm of airplanes,” he said, was what America and the West had coming to it, and a wave of young men prepared to do battle. Over the next year, Abu Ghayth would continue to be, in many respects, the public voice of Al Qaeda, its chief spokesman, as Americans came to know the organization and its aims.
On Tuesday, in a federal courtroom a few blocks from where the towers stood, Abu Ghayth sat expressionless, dressed in prison-issue blue, his full beard a little grayer 13 years on.
The Kuwaiti-born preacher was convicted in March on the two counts he faced for his involvement with the group: conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and providing material support to terrorists. And Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was likely the 48-year-old’s final appearance in a courtroom that many hoped he’d never enter. As the highest-ranking Al Qaeda associate yet tried on U.S. soil — described by the government as a close adviser to bin Laden himself, who is also Abu Ghayth’s father-in-law — the prosecution has been politically sensitive since before it began.
When Abu Ghayth was apprehended in Jordan in February 2013, after more than a decade under a kind of house arrest in Iran, questions about his fate reignited the furor over civilian trials for terrorism suspects. Many on the right, and even some on the left, wanted to see him sent to a military tribunal, preferably at Guantanamo Bay. They worried a civilian courtroom, with all its legal niceties, would give Abu Ghayth a chance to wriggle out of the charges he faced.
The uproar at the time was really the continuation of a debate that reached its peak in 2009, when the brand-new Obama administration announced its intention to try accused 9-11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the same courtroom. The warnings then were dire: The trial would be a magnet for terrorist attacks; the security measures required to keep the courtroom safe would “shut down” Lower Manhattan; some defense attorney would spring the monster on a technicality.
It was an argument that betrayed an implicit — and sometimes baldly explicit — lack of faith in a judicial system that, while far from perfect, has managed to function fairly well in trying terrorists so far, at least from the government’s point of view. The so-called Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted on charges related to the first World Trade Center attack, was tried in a civilian court in 1995. “Shoebomber” Richard Reid heard his verdict in 2002; the “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, in 2006.
None of their prosecutions were compromised by the due process afforded in a federal trial, flawed though it may have been in some instances. Nor did the largely transparent, open proceedings prove insufficient to the challenge. All are serving life sentences.
The defense team for Abu Ghayth say they were unable to bring a fully vigorous defense because of restrictions placed on evidence, justified by the government on national-security grounds. But whatever its imperfections, this was no secret trial. No fewer than a dozen journalists covered every stage of Abu Ghayth’s prosecution. Everyone from the New York Times to the lowly Village Voice was allowed into the courtroom to witness, take notes, and view the defendant on the stand, where he looked rather small, to tell the truth.
One reporter in attendance on Tuesday, working, she said, for Al Jazeera Arabic, filed a story to be broadcast all over the Arab world and beyond. The general public was allowed in, too, and in the end, it took two metal detectors — one at the building entrance and another outside Judge Kaplan’s courtroom — to keep the proceedings safe.
Abu Ghayth is and was, by all accounts, a powerful orator, prosecutors said in their final arguments on Tuesday. Brilliant, too. A formidable mouthpiece for an organization that always regarded public relations as a critical part of its mission. Prosecutors argued that his sermons and exhortations to the faithful drew recruits to Al Qaeda’s cause. They asked Kaplan for a life sentence.
Abu Ghayth’s defense attorney, the outspoken Stanley Cohen, argued for a sentence of 15 years. More than enough, he said, considering the defendant had already spent more than a decade in confinement overseas. The trial of Abu Ghayth, Cohen argued, had really been Osama bin Laden’s by proxy; the Kuwaiti was just a stand-in, a low-level propagandist and nothing more. “Speech, speech, and more speech,” Cohen told the court, was all Abu Ghayth was ever guilty of.
The defendant listened to all this impassively, slumped in his chair, as an interpreter murmured to him through a gray plastic headset. And after the defense and the prosecution had given their final remarks, he gave his, quoting the Koran and pronouncing himself defiant.
“At the same moment you are shackling my hands and intending to bury me alive, you are at the same time unleashing the hands of hundreds of Muslim youths,” Abu Ghayth said, through a translator. “You are removing the dust from their minds.”
It wasn’t that far from the language he was convicted of using, more than a decade ago, on those videotapes. But the rote, aggrandizing threats had lost some of their power by now, if they had any to begin with. He used the rhetoric of a holy warrior, but he was dressed, as everyone could see, like a criminal. “Decree whatever you wish to decree,” Abu Ghayth said, dismissing the trial as mere “theater.”
When Kaplan read his verdict, his tone was almost paternal. “You do in fact have some redeeming qualities,” he told Abu Ghayth. Before his time with Al Qaeda, Kaplan said, approvingly, Abu Ghayth had been a teacher, a spiritual leader. But as he cited the fatwas the cleric had issued over the years, and recounted the events of 9-11, Kaplan declared Abu Ghayth culpable in those crimes.
One video played at trial, filmed shortly after the attacks, shows Abu Ghayth in a dim room with bin Laden, who was describing the devastation of the attacks — his victory over the Americans. “You, at bin Laden’s right hand,” Kaplan said, invoking the footage, “evidenced amusement.”
In the video, bin Laden gloated that he’d predicted the full scale of the destruction, that the jet fuel would melt the towers’ steel skeletons and bring them to the ground. “And that’s exactly what happened,” Kaplan said, as a woman in the spectator’s box, hands folded, a black scarf wound around her neck, breathed deeply and shook her head, nearly imperceptibly.
A moment later, Kaplan sentenced Abu Ghayth to life in prison. Afterward, there was a press conference. Cohen promised to appeal. And the traffic on Pearl Street, in front of the courthouse, was moving just fine.