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Osama bin Laden son-in-law's trial opens

By Lena Jakobsson and Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 9:03 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A frame from video of the Saudi-owned television network MBC shows Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.
A frame from video of the Saudi-owned television network MBC shows Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is accused of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals
  • Prosecutor: "Osama bin Laden asked him to deliver al Qaeda's murderous decree to the entire world"
  • Defense lawyer: "This is not Osama bin Laden... this is not about the plot of 9/11, no matter how painful it was"

New York (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden ordered his son-in-law to "deliver al Qaeda's murderous decree to the entire world" in the hours after the September 11, 2001, attacks, a federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday during the opening of a Manhattan terror trial blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.

The son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, allegedly served as the mouthpiece for bin Laden and is accused of recruiting and inciting potential terrorists to launch attacks on Americans in the wake of the largest act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

"Osama bin Laden asked him to deliver al Qaeda's murderous decree to the entire world," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin said. "While our buildings still burned, he agreed."

Abu Ghaith, who was flown to the United States a year ago from Jordan and charged with conspiring to kill Americans, allegedly provided the terror organization with "its very lifeblood -- fighters, personnel and young men inspired to fight and die for al Qaeda," Lewin told the jury.

According to prosecutors, in a widely circulated video made hours after the attacks, Abu Ghaith sat next to bin Laden and al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging Muslims to fight "the Jews, the Christians and America."

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"The storm of airplanes will not abate," Lewin quoted Abu Ghaith as saying on a video.

Lewin said bin Laden recognized Abu Ghaith's value as a "fiery speaker" with a reputation in Afghanistan as an important religious scholar. The prosecutor told jurors that they will be able to hear Abu Ghaith's own statement to investigators as well as the testimony of two witnesses who implicate him in the terror plots.

Though Abu Ghaith is the highest-ranking al Qaeda figure to face trial on U.S. soil since the attacks, analysts have called him a small-time figure in the world of international terrorism.

What did terror suspect tell authorities on plane trip to U.S.?

'This is not Osama bin Laden'

Abu Ghaith's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, told the jury during opening statements that the prosecution's case was built on fear and alarm, rather than concrete evidence.

"Although the government would like you to believe that this is Osama bin Laden," he said, "this is not Osama bin Laden. And this is not about the plot of 9/11, no matter how painful it was for this city, this country and the world."

Bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011.

Abu Ghaith, who pleaded not guilty last year, sat in court Wednesday, wearing a dark suit and listening to opening statements through an interpreter.

On Wednesday afternoon, jurors heard from FBI agent James Fitzgerald, a terrorism expert. The jury of nine women, three men and six alternates also viewed still images from a video as well as a short video of Abu Ghaith alongside bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

On direct examination, Fitzgerald agreed that there was no direct evidence linking Abu Ghaith to the 9/11 attacks or any other terrorist acts against American targets.

Some prospective jurors were dismissed after saying they would have difficulty being fair because they knew people killed in the World Trade Center attack.

Another potential juror, a lawyer, was struck by the prosecution after he expressed concern about being able to evaluate testimony given what he knew about conditions at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, camp where the United States kept terror suspects.

Read the indictment

Tried in a civilian court

A member of bin Laden's inner circle, Abu Ghaith had spent most of his time since the September 11 terrorist attacks in Iran, according to the federal indictment.

Before joining al Qaeda in 2001, he taught high school and preached in his native Kuwait before he was banned from his mosque for using his sermons to attack the government, according to the U.S. government. He also fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He spent the months before the September 11 attacks recruiting candidates for training in his father-in-law's terror camps in Afghanistan, according to the indictment.

After the attacks that destroyed the twin World Trade Center towers in New York and heavily damaged the Pentagon in Washington, Abu Ghaith served as al Qaeda's official spokesman.

U.S. authorities have charged that Abu Ghaith supported a major attack on America and urged people at a Kandahar, Afghanistan, guest house to swear an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.

The decision to handle Abu Ghaith's case in civilian court irked some Republicans, who accused the Obama administration of setting a bad precedent and missing an opportunity to get valuable intelligence from someone who had been so close to bin Laden.

If convicted, Abu Ghaith could face life in prison.

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