Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and al-Qaida spokesman said he heard before the Sept. 11 attacks that "something big was going to happen" but didn't know what it was, an FBI agent testified Thursday.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith told authorities that when he visited al-Qaida training camps in the summer of 2001, he gleaned something major was in the works but never learned of any specific plan to attack the United States, Agent Michael Butsch testified at Abu Ghaith's federal trial in New York.
But Abu Ghaith said he was summoned to bin Laden's home after the 9/11 attacks unfolded, Butsch said.
"Bin laden first asked him, 'Did you see what happened?,' referring to the attacks. And he said he did, and bin Laden said that he did this operation," the agent said, recounting statements the government says Abu Ghaith made while being flown to the U.S. after his capture last year.
The highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to be tried on U.S. soil since the attacks, Abu Ghaith has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to al-Qaida.
Bin Laden then asked Abu Ghaith, a Kuwait-born imam who had agreed that summer to put his rhetorical skills to work for al-Qaida, to give a series of speeches — and even gave him bullet points, Abu Ghaith recalled, according to the FBI agent.
Abu Ghaith went on to make a series of videotaped speeches, the first of them on Sept. 12, with bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders visible alongside him.
"He said the purpose of these videotapes was for propaganda, to get them out into the media," Butsch said. In an Oct. 9, 2001, video, for instance, Abu Ghaith threatened that "America must know that the storm of airplanes will not abate, with God's permission."
According to the FBI's account of Abu Ghaith's statements, he initially went to Afghanistan in June 2001 because he was interested in jihadist movements and soon was invited to meet bin Laden, who had heard a tape of his preaching.
Bin Laden asked him to speak at training camps, explaining that "military hardens the heart," and then requested he join al-Qaida. Abu Ghaith replied that he wasn't interested in joining organizations but agreed to help al-Qaida as a scholar and orator and became its spokesman, engendering jealousy from others in the group.
Still, Abu Ghaith told authorities "he had many discussions with bin Laden that showed that they had differences in their beliefs," Butsch said. And Abu Ghaith said he believed jihad, or Holy War, doesn't necessarily mean only fighting, but could mean such undertakings as science and building.
Abu Ghaith's defense has noted that he's not accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 plot and has said that while he's an ideologue, he's not a terrorism conspirator.
Abu Ghaith's lawyers have said he married bin Laden's eldest daughter, Fatima, about five years ago.
Abu Ghaith has said in a sworn statement that he left Afghanistan in 2002 and entered Iran, where he was arrested and held in prisons and interrogated extensively. He said he was heading home to Kuwait to see relatives when his flight landed instead in Amman, Jordan, where he was handcuffed and turned over to American authorities.
Abu Ghaith's lawyers had sought to keep his statements to authorities out of his trial, saying that he wasn't properly informed of his right to a lawyer and that he was interrogated with few breaks and little food on a 14-hour flight to a suburban New York airport; a judge disagreed.
Butsch said Abu Ghaith was treated "like a gentleman," advised of his rights, and told he could take breaks anytime he wanted for food, water or prayers. And Abu Ghaith agreed to talk, via an Arabic-language interpreter, the agent said.
"He said, 'You will hear things of al-Qaida that you never imagined," Butsch said.