NEW YORK — Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law went on trial Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan, where jurors heard him portrayed both as a murderous mouthpiece for Al Qaeda and as a target of a prosecution designed to play on fears and resentments from the Sept. 11 attacks.
In opening statements, Assistant US Attorney Nicholas Lewin told the jury that bin Laden had summoned Sulaiman Abu Ghaith on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, and asked him to use his oratory skills as the public face of Al Qaeda to recruit and inspire recruits to attack the United States again. Abu Ghaith is the highest-ranking Al Qaeda figure to face trial on US soil since suicide attackers struck the city’s twin towers.
‘‘While our buildings still burned, he agreed . . . in what is the most important moment in Al Qaeda’s savage history,’’ Lewin said, showing jurors a photo of Abu Ghaith sitting side-by-side with bin Laden in Afghanistan on Sept. 12, 2001. ‘‘He invoked his twisted view of Islam and declared, ‘Fight thee against the friends of Satan. Fight with Al Qaeda against America.’ ’’
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen countered, pointing out that Lewin referenced the Sept. 11 attacks several times, even though his client was not involved in the plot.
‘‘This is not Osama bin Laden,’’ Cohen said, pointing to Abu Ghaith. ‘‘This is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Muslim, an Arab from Kuwait, a husband, a father, an imam, a talker, an ideologue.’’
Abu Ghaith, 48, a onetime imam at a Kuwaiti mosque, was brought to New York from Turkey last year. He has pleaded not guilty to charges he conspired to kill Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks and provided material support and resources to a terrorist organization. Born in Kuwait, he is married to bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima.
Prosecutors allege Abu Ghaith began his rise through the ranks for Al Qaeda by becoming a motivational speaker at safe houses and training camps for aspiring jihadists in the weeks and months before Sept. 11. Afterward, bin Laden instructed him to lead recruitment efforts by appearing in widely distributed videos.
‘‘For more than a year after, the defendant used the murderous power of his words to try to strengthen Al Qaeda,’’ Lewin said. He quoted the defendant several times, including one remark he said came weeks after the attack: ‘‘These young men who have destroyed the United States and launched the storm of airplanes against it have done a good deed. The storm of airplanes will not abate.’’
The government contends the statements are evidence that Abu Ghaith had prior knowledge of the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001.