NEW YORK - In surprise testimony in a Manhattan courtroom Wednesday, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law recounted the night of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the al-Qaida leader sent a messenger to drive him into a mountainous area for a meeting inside a cave in Afghanistan.
"Did you learn what happened? We are the ones who did it," the son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, recalled bin Laden telling him.
When bin Laden asked what he thought would happen next, Abu Ghaith testified that he responded by predicting America "will not settle until it kills you and topples the state of the Taliban."
Bin Laden responded: "You're being too pessimistic," Abu Ghaith recalled.
Bin Laden then told the onetime imam, "I want to deliver a message to the world. ... I want you to deliver the message," he said.
The testimony came at Abu Ghaith's trial on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. His decision to take the witness stand was announced by his lawyer, Stanley Cohen, who surprised a nearly empty courtroom that quickly filled with spectators as word spread.
The rare gambit by the defense was a last-ditch effort to counter a mountain of evidence against Abu Gaith, including an alleged confession and videos showing him sitting beside Bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001, and another in which he warned Americans that "the storm of airplanes will not abate." The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but they contend that he was recruited as a religious teacher and orator, and had no role in plotting more attacks.
Testifying through an Arabic interpreter, the 48-year-old Kuwaiti-born defendant looked relaxed when he took the stand, wearing a blue shirt, open at the collar, beneath a charcoal-colored jacket. His hands were sometimes folded before him, though sometimes he waved or pointed them for emphasis.
He told jurors he went to Afghanistan for the first time in June 2001 because he had a "serious desire to get to know the new Islamic government in Afghanistan." He testified he first met bin Laden when the al-Qaida leader, who was living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, summoned him after hearing that he was a preacher from Kuwait.
Abu Ghaith testified bin Laden explained that the al-Qaida training camps involved so much weapons training and a rough, hard life that he wanted him to change that, to reach the hearts of recruits and show them another side of life. He also testified he knew bin Laden was suspected in terrorist attacks but still "wanted to get to know that person."
"I wanted to see what he had, what is it he wanted," he said.
The defendant testified that videos he made warning that there would be more attacks on Americans and trying to inspire others to join al-Qaida's cause were based on "quotes and points by Sheik Osama." He also denied allegations by the government that he had prior knowledge of the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001.
He testified that his videotaped sermons were religious in nature, and meant to encourage Muslims to fight oppression.
If "oppression befalls ... any category of people, that category must revolt at some point," he said. "I wanted to proclaim the message that Muslims must bear some responsibility to defend themselves."
Abu Ghaith said he wasn't involved in recruiting aspiring terrorists.
"My intention was to deliver a message, a message I believed in," he said. "I was hoping the United States would say, 'Let's sit down and talk and solve these problems,' but America was going on and doing what I expected them to do."
On cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Ferrara zeroed in on Abu Ghaith's testimony that he accepted an invitation to meet with bin Laden on Sept. 11 because the al-Qaida leader was a sheik who deserved respect, and his admission that he was aware bin Laden's organization was behind the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
"You testified that, despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, you met with him to be polite, correct?" the prosecutor asked.
Abu Ghaith responded that he simply went to find out what bin Laden wanted from him. Asked about bin Laden's demeanor, he said, "I would say he was worried."
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan did not immediately rule on Cohen's request that the defense be permitted to call Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-professed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, as a witness via a video link from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is imprisoned.
Cohen said it wasn't the right time to pursue that request, which was denied by Kaplan on Tuesday but was renewed after Mohammed confirmed he would be willing to testify.