In this courtroom sketch, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, right, testifies March 19 at his trial in New York on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. (Elizabeth Williams / AP)
NEW YORK — Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, the voice of fiery al-Qaida propaganda videotapes after the Sept. 11 attacks, was convicted Wednesday of conspiring to kill Americans for his role as the terror group’s spokesman.
The verdict came after about six hours of deliberation over two days in the case against Kuwaiti imam Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on U.S. soil since the attacks.
As a court deputy read the verdict aloud, Abu Ghaith, listening to an Arabic interpreter through earphones, remained composed as he had throughout the trial. Just before he was led from the courtroom, he turned toward a spectator — a longtime friend from Kuwait — and smiled.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he hoped the verdict brought some measure of comfort to al-Qaida victims.
“He was more than just Osama bin Laden’s propaganda minister,” Bharara said. “Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghaith was using his position in al-Qaida’s homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to al-Qaida in the cause of murdering more Americans.”
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen emerged from court promising to appeal.
Abu Ghaith had testified during a three-week trial that he answered bin Laden’s request in the hours after the attacks to speak on the widely circulated videos used to recruit new followers willing to go on suicide missions like the 19 who hijacked four planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The storm of airplanes will not stop,” Abu Ghaith warned in an October 2001 video that was played for the jury.
Also shown repeatedly to the jury during the trial were frames of a video made Sept. 12, 2001, that showed Abu Ghaith seated next to bin Laden and two other top al-Qaida leaders as they tried to justify the attacks.
Sentencing was set for Sept. 8. The charges — conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiring to provide support to al-Qaida and providing support to al-Qaida — carry a potential penalty of life in prison.
Cohen complained outside court after the verdict that U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan rushed the verdict by warning jurors at the start of deliberations Wednesday that he might direct them to stay late if they were not finished by 4:30 p.m.
Cohen said the judge’s instruction sent a message to the jury: “You should be done. This is a no-brainer.”
“It’s terribly coercive,” the lawyer said.
Cohen said an appeal would partially stem from the judge’s decisions barring testimony about his lengthy confinement in Iran and rejecting the defense request to call self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed as a witness. In a written statement, Mohammed had said Abu Ghaith had no military role in al-Qaida.
“I think he feels it was impossible under the circumstances to receive a fair trial, given certain rulings,” Cohen said of his client.
On Monday, during closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan underscored the importance of Abu Ghaith’s post-9/11 status.
“Going to that man was the very first thing Osama bin Laden did on Sept. 11 after the terror attacks,” he said. “The defendant committed himself to al-Qaida’s conspiracy to kill Americans, and he worked to drive other people to that conspiracy.”
He added: “During the most important period of time in al-Qaida’s savage history, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was Osama bin Laden’s principal messenger. … He used his fiery oratory to incite al-Qaida’s growing army of terror in this war with America.”
Taking the witness stand in his own defense, Abu Ghaith calmly denied he was an al-Qaida recruiter and claimed his role was a religious one aimed at encouraging all Muslims to rise up against their oppressors. He insisted he agreed to meet with bin Laden in a cave on the night of Sept. 11 out of respect for bin Laden’s standing as a sheik.
“Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, you met with him to be polite, correct?” prosecutor Michael Ferrara asked on cross-examination.
“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.
The jurors’ identities will be kept secret for security reasons, as was done during the first World Trade Center trial in 1993.
Relatives of 9/11 victims and U.S. authorities praised the verdict.
The conviction “means something. It means there are consequences,” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the American Airlines pilot of the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.
George Venizelos, head of the FBI’s New York office, compared Abu Ghaith to a consigliore for the mob or the chief of staff to a corrupt foreign leader.
“Abu Ghaith was the spokesman, confidant, and senior adviser to bin Laden’s organization,” he said. “Abu Ghaith looked to better al-Qaida’s reputation at every turn, offering advice and counsel to the organization’s senior leadership.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.