THE BLOG
09/23/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Al Qaeda Messenger Gets Life Behind Bars

Minutes before he would learn his prison sentence for aiding al Qaeda before, during, and after 9/11, Suleiman Abu Ghaith decided once again to threaten the United States.

"At the same moment where you are shackling my hands and intend to bury me alive, you are at the same time unleashing the hands of hundreds of Muslim youth, and you are removing the dust of their minds, and they will join the rally of the free men," Abu Ghaith told U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan through an Arabic translator, who announced the defendant's words in English to a packed Lower Manhattan courtroom.

Abu Ghaith defined a free man such as himself as "one who dies standing on his feet," and he asked for no mercy. "Islam is the religion that does not die when its followers die or get killed, and it does not come to a stop when they get captured or imprisoned," he said.

A translator, astute enough to bring a paperback Koran to the hearing Tuesday morning, recognized the defendant, a trained imam, was quoting from the Muslim holy book, and so he simply read the verses as Abu Ghaith stated them.

True believers, Abu Ghaith concluded after five minutes, await "martyrdom or victory," he said, while "Allah will afflict you with punishment."

After a three week jury trial in March, Abu Ghaith, 48, stood convicted of providing material support to al Qaeda and joining its global conspiracy to kill Americans.

His trial suit was gone; he wore a white skull cap and dark blue, standard-issue jail garb over an orange T-shirt. His gray beard grew longer in the past six months. He listened intently to the proceedings through headphones providing the translation and took notes with a red felt tip pen. Abu Ghaith faced a maximum life sentence. His attorneys hoped for 15 years.

Defense attorney Stanley Cohen argued his client deserved no more than the 25 year sentence federal prosecutors requested of Judge Kaplan for former al Qaeda operative Adel Abdel Bary just four days ago, when Abdel Bary pleaded guilty to a role in the 1998 twin truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands.

Cohen calculated 25 years minus credit for an "11 year period of hell in Iranian custody" Abu Ghaith spent after 9/11 under house arrest with other al Qaeda members was "more than enough" punishment. Under that scenario, Abu Ghaith conceivable could be set free in 2028 at 62.

"At the end of the day," Cohen said, "there is not a scintilla of evidence" Abu Ghaith planned or engaged in a "single act of terrorism at all."

A problem for this argument was although Judge Kaplan accepted Abdel Bary's plea last week, he has not accepted the plea bargain. Kaplan openly questioned whether the proposed sentence is too lenient.

Assistant United States Attorney John Cronan agreed Abu Ghaith was not an "operational terrorist," but said he was "all in" as "the public voice of al Qaeda" at its most crucial time.

As he did at trial, Cronan argued Abu Ghaith's post-9/11 statements about a continued "storm of airplanes" hinted at knowledge of future planned attacks, such as the attempted shoe bombing of a U.S.-bound jetliner by Richard Reid in December 2001. More importantly, the prosecutor said, those statements were a recruiting tool.

"People like Suleiman Abu Ghaith is how al Qaeda replenishes its ranks of suicide operatives," Cronan said.

Kaplan, who presides over the al Qaeda docket stemming from the first indictment of Osama bin Laden and the embassy bombings, said he had "thought as long and as hard about the sentence in this case" as any in his 20 years on the bench. In the end, he sought a sentence to ensure Abu Ghaith could never again aid terrorism and make others "think twice" before doing so.

The judge commended Abu Ghaith for his "redeeming qualities" as an spiritual guide, teacher, and family man in his native Kuwait, with no known criminal conduct prior to 2001.

But in that fateful summer, while choosing to live under the Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Abu Ghaith agreed to meet bin Laden, who had publicly declared war on the U.S. and taken credit for the embassy bombings and bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

Abu Ghaith agreed to preach to al Qaeda recruits at the military training camps, where he learned the terrorist group was planning "something big."

Kaplan said, "I don't know whether you had heard the operational particulars or even the identity of the targets, but I do believe that you knew that 'something big' meant another big attack on Americans."

Six days before 9/11, Abu Ghaith evacuated his wife and six children to Pakistan, and then he returned alone to what would become the battlefield.

"You went back to Afghanistan to help fight the United States, to help in attacks on Americans," Kaplan said.

On the evening of 9/11, bin Laden summoned Abu Ghaith to a mountain hideout, and the next morning, seated next to bin Laden, Abu Ghaith taped his first of what would be a half dozen statements justifying the attacks or threatening new ones and promoting "jihad."

Acknowledging that "jihad" has various meanings, including an observant Muslim's internal struggle, Kaplan asserted, "I don't have the slightest doubt that when you used that word over and over again in these videos and these other statements, you meant 'killing.'"

Abu Ghaith appeared in the infamous post-9/11 video where a jocular bin Laden bragged about foreseeing how exploding jet fuel would cause steel beams to melt and the Twin Towers to collapse.

What also riled Judge Kaplan were Abu Ghaith's total lack of remorse in hours of trial testimony or sentencing and his continued threats.

"You, sir, in my assessment, are committed to doing everything you can to assist al Qaeda's agenda of killing Americans, guilty or innocent, combatant or non-combatant, adult or babies, without regard to the carnage that's caused," Kaplan said.

Upon hearing he would spend the rest of his life behind bars, Abu Ghaith stood stoically and exhibited no reaction. He shook his attorneys hands and left without incident in the company of three U.S. Marshals.

After court adjourned, defense attorney Zoe Dolan told me, "The question is whether a life sentence is appropriate for something someone said."

Some 9/11 victims' families attended the trial, but none appeared or spoke at the sentencing hearing.

It has been only 18 months from Abu Ghaith's arrest overseas, arrival on U.S. soil, trial, and sentence -- a speedy trial indeed. For 20 years now, going back to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have successfully prosecuted dozens of terrorism defendants in a series of major, often multi-defendant jury trials. Since 9/11, the nation's only prosecution for the hijackings and crashes into the Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, has occurred in Virginia, resulting in life imprisonment for Zacarias Moussaoui, and across the country federal prosecutors have achieved hundreds of "terrorism-related" convictions.

These cases, some better and more serious than others, are victories not only for the FBI agents and prosecutors who almost always win guilty verdicts upheld on appeal, but for defense attorneys too, who win an opportunity to hold the government accountable, challenge witnesses and evidence in open court, and uphold Constitutional rights for everyone, even foreigners accused of terrorist acts against overseas.

As Abu Ghaith defense attorney Dolan told me as she left court, "I'm a defense lawyer, because I believe in trials."