NEW YORK — It was some hours after the World Trade Center towers had been toppled when Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was summoned to a meeting with Osama bin Laden. He recalled a three-hour or so drive into the night, finding the Al Qaeda leader in a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden wanted his opinion on what would happen next, Abu Ghaith recalled Wednesday. He said that he told bin Laden that he was not a military analyst, but the bin Laden pressed him.
Abu Ghaith said he told bin Laden that “America — if it was proven that you were the one who did this — will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of Taliban.
“He said, ‘You are being too pessimistic.’
“I said, ‘You asked my opinion, and this is my opinion,’” Abu Ghaith testified.
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Abu Ghaith served as a spokesman for bin Laden, amplifying some of his pronouncements, and giving voice, prosecutors say, to a broad recruitment drive for fighters committed to wage war on the United States. He later married one of bin Laden’s daughters.
On Wednesday, Abu Ghaith gave voice to his own cause, unexpectedly taking the stand in a federal courtroom in Manhattan to defend himself against charges that include conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists.
Abu Ghaith is the most senior bin Laden adviser to be tried in a civilian trial in the United States since the attacks, and he offered an intimate look at bin Laden at the time of the attacks.
“We are the ones who did it,” the defendant said bin Laden told him.
The decision by Abu Ghaith, a 48-year-old Kuwaiti-born cleric, to testify came two weeks into his trial in US District Court in Manhattan, where, Wednesday, the defense rested its case. The jury is expected to begin deliberations early next week.
Abu Ghaith had been in Afghanistan in 2001, delivering religious lectures in Al Qaeda training camps, he said. On Sept. 12, he testified, bin Laden invited asked him to deliver a message to the world.
Abu Ghaith recalled saying that he was new in this field.
He said bin Laden replied, “I am going to give you some points and you build around them that speech.”
In videotaped speeches, the first delivered Sept. 12, 2001, as he sat beside bin Laden, Abu Ghaith praised the Sept. 11 attacks and warned of more.
Abu Ghaith’s decision to testify gave federal prosecutors a rare chance to cross-examine someone who was so close to bin Laden, and the government took full advantage of the opportunity.
Abu Ghaith had said under direct examination that bin Laden wanted him to lecture in the Al Qaeda camps because the trainees had a hard life.
“I need you to change that,” bin Laden told him, Abu Ghaith recalled. He said bin Laden wanted him to offer them a “merciful heart.”
Seizing on that moment, a prosecutor, Michael Ferrara, later asked Abu Ghaith: “You’re telling this jury that bin Laden asked you to speak at those training camps where men were armed and learning how to use guns because he wanted you to talk about mercy?”
“Yes,” Abu Ghaith replied.
Abu Ghaith had also testified that he had no idea specifically that the Sept. 11 attacks would occur, saying he learned of them from news reports.
But on cross-examination, he admitted that in the training camps, he had heard that “something” might happen.
Prosecutors have not accused Abu Ghaith of helping to plan the attacks. But they say Abu Ghaith knew of the Al Qaeda plot in which Richard C. Reid tried to blow up an airplane with explosives in his shoes — an assertion he denied.