A British operative for Al Qaeda testified on March 4 that, before abandoning a plot to blow up an airplane, he flew from Pakistan to the Netherlands and then on to Britain while concealing a bomb in his shoe.
The operative, Saajid Badat, said in federal court in Manhattan that “Plan A” had been to blow up a domestic flight in the United States, so he did not detonate his shoe bomb.
The testimony came in the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who has been portrayed by prosecutors as a Bin Laden confidant and a propaganda specialist. The government has argued that Abu Ghaith knew in advance of the shoe-bomb plot.
Badat has said that he did not meet Abu Ghaith in Afghanistan. But he offered a fairly intimate account of his interactions with Bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He described how he and Richard C. Reid, who tried but failed to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight, met with Mr. Mohammed in December 2001 about the shoe-bomb plot. “We discussed how we should go about this attack,” Badat said.
He said Mr. Mohammed had an almanac and showed him a list of the world’s tallest buildings, which included the two World Trade Center towers.
“He got the pen out and crossed them out,” Badat testified, adding, “I am ashamed to say that when he did this, he did it in order to make us laugh, as a joke.”
Badat said that after he agreed to undertake a shoe-bombing mission, he met with Bin Laden, who asked whether he understood “the significance of this operation.”
“He then said that the American economy is like a chain,” Badat added. “He said if you break one link, you will bring down the American economy.”
The designer of the shoe bombs gave them to Badat and Reid in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He added that they each practiced lighting the fuse.
Badat testified from Britain via a live video connection, and a prosecutor, Nicholas J. Lewin, and Abu Ghaith’s lead lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen, were in Britain to question him.
Badat pleaded guilty in Britain in 2005 and has been cooperating with the authorities. He testified about his time in Qaeda guesthouses and training camps in Afghanistan, and in the group’s media center, where he said he translated Bin Laden’s speeches into English.
Much of his account is not new: In 2012, a Brooklyn jury heard his videotaped testimony from Britain in the trial of a Queens man, Adis Medunjanin, who was convicted in a plot to blow up New York subways.
But in the Manhattan trial, Badat has offered new details. He elaborated, for example, on a plot he described in 2012, in which he and Reid helped a group of Malaysians, including a pilot, who had wanted to carry out their own “terrorist act” involving an airplane.
Badat said that he gave the Malaysians one of his shoes that had explosives hidden inside. The Malaysians, he said, wanted to use the device to “access the cockpit” of a plane. He offered no further detail about how far that plot progressed.
Badat said that when he arrived in Britain, ready to make preparations to fly to the United States, his parents sat him down and asked whether he was a “sleeper,” an operative who remains hidden, sometimes for years, before carrying out an attack. “They knew I was in Afghanistan,” Badat said. “They weren’t quite sure who I was working with.”His father warned that he “better not be one of those sleepers,” he said. “And my mum also said that I wouldn’t want my son to be one of those sleepers.”
“It was then I decided to back out of the mission,” he said. He emailed his handler in Karachi, Pakistan, using a code name to refer to Reid. “Tell Van Damme he’ll be on his own,” Badat recalled writing.
It was some hours after the World Trade Center towers had been toppled when Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was summoned to a meeting with Osama bin Laden. He recalled a three-hour-or-so drive into the night, finding the leader of Al Qaeda in a cave amid the mountains in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden wanted his opinion on what would happen next, Abu Ghaith testified on March 19. He said he told Bin Laden that he was not a military analyst, but Bin Laden pressed him. Abu Ghaith said he told him that “America, if it was proven that you were the one who did this, will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of Taliban. “He said, ‘You are being too pessimistic.’ “I said, ‘You asked my opinion, and this is my opinion.’ ”
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Abu Ghaith, who later became Bin Laden’s son-in-law, served as a spokesman for him, amplifying some of his pronouncements, and giving voice, prosecutors say, to a broad recruitment drive for fighters committed to wage war on the United States.
Abu Ghaith gave voice to his own cause, unexpectedly taking the stand in a federal courtroom in Manhattan to defend himself against charges that include conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists. He is the most senior Bin Laden adviser to be tried — let alone testify — in a civilian trial in the United States since the attacks, and he offered an extraordinarily intimate look at Bin Laden at the time, taking jurors inside his cave in Afghanistan.
After the drive from Kandahar, Abu Ghaith said, he found Bin Laden “in a cave, inside a mountain, in a rough terrain.”
“He said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ He said, ‘Did you learn about what happened?’ ”
Bin Laden told him that “we are the ones who did it,” the defendant recalled in response to questions posed by his lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen.
The decision by Mr. Abu Ghaith, a 48-year-old Kuwaiti-born cleric, to testify came two weeks into his trial in Federal District Court. Late on March 19, the defense rested its case. The jury is expected to begin deliberations early next week.
Abu Ghaith had been in Afghanistan for several months in 2001, where he was delivering religious lectures in Qaeda training camps, he said. On the morning of Sept. 12, he testified, Bin Laden told him he wanted “to deliver a message to the world.”
Abu Ghaith recalled saying that he was “new in this field.” He said Bin Laden replied, “I am going to give you some points and you build around them that speech.”
In those videotaped speeches, the first delivered on Sept. 12, 2001, as he sat beside Bin Laden, Abu Ghaith praised the Sept. 11 attacks and warned of others to come.
Abu Ghaith’s decision to testify gave federal prosecutors a rare chance to cross-examine someone who was so close to Bin Laden, and the government took full advantage of the opportunity.
Abu Ghaith had said under direct examination, for example, that Bin Laden wanted him to lecture in the Qaeda camps because the trainees had a “hard life.”
“I need you to change that,” Bin Laden told him, Abu Ghaith recalled. He said Bin Laden wanted him to make them be merciful.
Seizing on that moment, a prosecutor, Michael Ferrara, later asked Abu Ghaith, “You’re telling this jury that Bin Laden asked you to speak at those training camps where men were armed and learning how to use guns because he wanted you to talk about mercy?”
“Yes,” Mr. Abu Ghaith replied.
In the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, became a familiar figure in propaganda videos for Al Qaeda, appearing in some with Osama bin Laden, and other times alone, issuing blistering threats against the United States.
“The storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm,” he said in one speech, a federal indictment charges.
Abu Ghaith, who later married Bin Laden’s daughter Fatima, was captured in 2013 and brought to the United States on terrorism charges.
“Abu Ghaith held a key position in Al Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime,” George Venizelos, director of the FBI’s office in New York, said 2013.
Unlike Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, Abu Ghaith has not been accused of having advance knowledge of the attacks or being involved in terrorist operations. But prosecutors portray him as a trusted adviser and confidant of Bin Laden’s, and they believe he was probably aware of the plot in which Richard C. Reid tried unsuccessfully to blow up an airplane on a trans-Atlantic flight by detonating explosives in his shoes.
“Abu Ghaith’s hands may not be as directly drenched in blood as K.S.M.’s are,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, but he “was nonetheless at the vortex of Al Qaeda’s operations at arguably the most important moment in the movement’s history.”
The trial, coming more than four years after the disputed and since abandoned plan to try Mohammed in Manhattan, may further the debate over whether international terrorism cases should be tried in civilian court.
Mr. Mohammed’s testimony may yet figure in Abu Ghaith’s trial. His lawyers, citing Mr. Mohammed’s potentially “staggering” knowledge of Qaeda activities, have been seeking his testimony, presumably via a video link from the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he is being detained.
The idea that Mr. Mohammed might help persuade New York jurors to acquit Bin Laden’s son-in-law seemed far-fetched to some.
“It’s hard to see how someone responsible for the murder of 2,976 innocent people could ever be an effective witness for anybody, under any circumstance,” said David Raskin, a former chief of the terrorism unit in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan.
But Abu Ghaith’s lead lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen, has said he anticipates that Mohammed’s testimony “will directly and totally repudiate the government’s assertion that Abu Ghaith was a member of, or provided material support to, Al Qaeda or to any conspiracy laid at its feet.”
Abu Ghaith, 48, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support for terrorists; if convicted, he could face life in prison.
The cleric gained prominence in the early 1990s in Kuwaiti mosques, where he offered “charismatic denunciations of the ‘enemies’ of Islam,” according to a draft report by Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst with the consulting firm Flashpoint Global Partners, whose testimony the government plans to use at trial.
In June 2000, Abu Ghaith moved to Afghanistan and became the “official spokesman” for Al Qaeda, Mr. Kohlmann wrote. In some video clips, Mr. Kohlmann added, Abu Ghaith appears outdoors, seated cross-legged and offering “poetic endorsements for violent jihad and ‘martyrdom’ while engaged in combat.”