NEW YORK >> In public statements a week apart, al-Qaida’s self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind and a Kuwaiti imam who met with Osama bin Laden in a cave soon after the attacks once again demonstrated that time hasn’t softened their anti-American views.
If anything, Khalid Sheik Mohammed — in new writings from his Guantanamo Bay cell — and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith — on trial in Manhattan federal court — are using courtroom theater, intentionally or not, to press their case that the United States is such a bully in the Middle East that even killing civilians was justified.
"The entire trial is frozen in time if you think about it," said Karen J. Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law who was one of the few people in the Manhattan courtroom Thursday when the surprise announcement was made that Abu Ghaith would testify. "Because the trial is focused on the moment of 9/11, it makes everybody seem like they’re frozen in the time of 9/11."
Mohammed’s words emerged a week ago in a written statement responding to more than 400 questions from defense lawyers in their failed bid to win the court’s permission to have him testify on behalf of Abu Ghaith, who is on trial on charges that he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida after the terrorist attacks.
Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003, boasted that Afghanistan under Taliban leadership "was the first Islamic state that treated all Muslim men equally, whether they be Chinese, Indian, Chechnyan, Arabs, or Westerners." There was no mention of women.
He claimed the U.S. closed some embassies and canceled some joint military maneuvers in Jordan because of publicity he orchestrated while in charge of al-Qaida’s media wing, including the release of some clips from bin Laden speeches, the publication of a video called "Destroying the Destroyer" and the appearance of pictures of al-Qaida military training camps.
"All this was not in vain because, while the enemy has capabilities that we do not possess, we have the same mental capacity Allah gave to all; and while they use their muscles, we use our minds," Mohammed wrote.
Mohammed remains devoted to bin Laden, killed in a 2011 U.S. attack, saying the al-Qaida founder was "very wise in every order he gave us." And he was especially proud of what he claimed was al-Qaida’s cost to the American economy.
He said "every state of emergency declared and change of alert level" on the military and civilian sectors cost the country millions of dollars and the wars waged by the U.S. after Sept. 11 have cost it about a trillion dollars, "the bleeding of which continues to this day."
A judge ruled jurors at Abu Ghaith’s ongoing trial won’t see Mohammed’s statement. But they received a lesson in jihad from the defendant, who took the unusual step of taking the witness stand and — rather than try to distance himself from al-Qaida — described in detail how bin Laden summoned him to his mountain hideout in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks and enlisted him as the terror group’s mouthpiece.
Abu Ghaith showed none of the arrogance and air of invincibility that he displayed on videos distributed worldwide after the attacks when he waved his hands through the air and threatened America as he posed with bin Laden, current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the organization’s then-military leader on Sept. 12, 2001. But he also didn’t back down from his support of bin Laden immediately after the attacks or his motivation, saying he sought "to deliver a message, a message I believed in."
And he said the message justifying the attacks came from the premise that "oppression, if it befalls any nation, any people, any category of people, that category must revolt at some point. … And what happened was a result, as I understand, a natural result for the oppression that befell Muslims."
It was shortly after this point in Abu Ghaith’s testimony that U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan warned him to answer only the questions posed to him, saying "save the speeches for some other time."
In videos played during the trial, Abu Ghaith can be heard shouting as he threatened the United States.
"The Americans must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, God willing, and there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life," Abu Ghaith said in an Oct. 9, 2001, speech.
In a discussion between lawyers in the trial and the judge, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara called the sudden announcement by defense lawyer Stanley Cohen that Abu Ghaith would testify "sandbagging of the worst sort," saying the lawyer had told prosecutors his client would not testify.
When he cross-examined Abu Ghaith, there was anger and disbelief in his voice as he elicited from the defendant that he left behind his pregnant wife and seven children to go to Afghanistan four days before the Sept. 11 attacks because he knew al-Qaida was about to do "something big." And then the prosecutor noted that he traveled several hours to meet bin Laden on Sept. 11, when the al-Qaida leader summoned him.
"Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, you met with him to be polite, correct?" Ferrara asked.
"I didn’t go to meet with him to bless if he had killed hundreds of Americans or not. I went to meet with him to know what he wanted," Abu Ghaith said.
Richard K. Betts, director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University, said it was not surprising that Abu Ghaith would stick to his beliefs.
"Al-Qaida ideology sees the USA as corrupt, blasphemous, aggressive, and threatening to Muslims. What in his experience should convince him otherwise? That we give him three square meals a day and let him read the Quran?" he said in an email. "The USA has waged war intensively against his organization, al-Qaida, for more than a dozen years, and killed his idol, Bin Laden. Whether or not he’s guilty of a crime under U.S. law may be unclear, but if conversion to sympathy with us is a requirement for acquittal I imagine he’s cooked."