NEW YORK — More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a man who came to speak for Osama bin Laden in a series of impassioned videotaped messages that praised the attacks and promised more was convicted by a federal jury on Wednesday of conspiring to kill Americans and of other terrorism charges.
The defendant, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was the most senior bin Laden confederate to be tried in a civilian court in the United States since 9/11, and his swift conviction on all counts would seem to serve as a rejoinder to critics of the Obama administration’s efforts to try suspected terrorists in civilian court, rather than before a military tribunal.
“It was appropriate that this defendant, who publicly rejoiced over the attacks on the World Trade Center, faced trial in the shadow of where those buildings once stood,” US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Citing the success of the civilian courts in “hundreds of other cases involving terrorism defendants,” he added, “it would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest.”
The verdict, returned after six hours of deliberations, comes a little more than a year after Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of bin Laden, was turned over to US authorities in Jordan and flown to New York to face charges. The trial lasted three weeks.
The decision to prosecute Abu Ghaith in federal court reignited the debate over whether international terrorists should be placed in military custody and sent to the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who sharply criticized that decision, said that while he was pleased with the verdict, he still believed Abu Ghaith should have been held by the military “as an enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes.”
Nonetheless, the successful prosecution of Abu Ghaith could further smooth the way for the Justice Department to pursue the cases of other suspected terrorists in federal court if they are captured; for example, Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, remains under indictment in Manhattan.
Abu Ghaith, a 48-year-old Kuwaiti-born cleric known for his fiery oratory, was so trusted by bin Laden that on the night of Sept. 11, the Al Qaeda leader invited him to his remote Afghan cave.
“He said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ He said, ‘Did you learn about what happened?’ ” Abu Ghaith testified at the trial. “He said, ‘We are the ones who did it.’”
The next day, at bin Laden’s request, Abu Ghaith issued the first of a series of videotaped statements that helped bin Laden spread his global message of terror, energize Al Qaeda fighters, and recruit new ones, prosecutors told the jury.
Abu Ghaith has not been accused of having a role in the plot to attack the World Trade Center or of knowing about it. But when asked by a prosecutor if he “knew something big was coming from Al Qaeda,” he responded, “Yes.”
He was convicted on three counts: conspiracy to kill Americans, for which he could face life in prison; and providing material support to terrorists and conspiring to do so, counts which each carry maximum terms of 15 years. The judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, said the defendant would be sentenced Sept. 8.
Abu Ghaith, who used an Arabic interpreter in US District Court in Manhattan, appeared impassive as the judge’s deputy clerk, Andrew Mohan, read the verdict aloud, repeating “guilty” three times.
Abu Ghaith’s lead lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen, said later that his client was stoic and “at ease.”
“He has confidence that this is not the end but the beginning,” Cohen said, adding that there were “a number of compelling issues” for appeal.
Crucial among them, Cohen said, was the judge’s refusal to allow the defense to introduce testimony from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks who is detained at Guantánamo Bay. Cohen had argued that Mohammed, with his unsurpassed knowledge of Al Qaeda operations, could help exculpate his client.
Cohen also said the prosecution had “gone out of its way to exploit the anguish and pain of 9/11 to fill an enormous evidentiary vacuum,” making it “literally impossible for a jury of New Yorkers to look objectively” at the case.
The prosecution team of John P. Cronan, Michael Ferrara, and Nicholas J. Lewin told the jury there was overwhelming evidence that Abu Ghaith had participated in a conspiracy to kill Americans and had provided support to terrorists.
They cited the videos he had made for bin Laden, in which he praised Sept. 11 and warned repeatedly that the “storm of airplanes” would not abate, a clear reference, they said, to future attacks.
In one video, Abu Ghaith warned Muslims in the United States and Britain “not to board aircraft” and “not to live in high rises.”
In another, he attributed the Sept. 11 attacks to the United States’ policies toward Muslims. “The American people must know that they bear full responsibility,” he declared.
The prosecution roundly rejected Cohen’s argument that Abu Ghaith had not always been speaking for Al Qaeda on the videos, and his suggestion that his client was an Islamic theologian, speaking for Muslims more broadly.
“This man twisted and manipulated that religion beyond all recognition,” Ferrara said in the government’s rebuttal, “and he did so in the service of motivating young men to kill Americans.”