Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri, from an al Qaeda propaganda tape. Image from BBC/AP.
Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman after the 9/11 attacks, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has been convicted on terrorism charges by a New York jury.
Years before his conviction for supporting al Qaeda and conspiring to kill Americans, Abu Ghaith garnered international infamy after his appearance with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders in a video that was filmed on Sept. 12, 2001. In the weeks that followed, his threats of additional attacks were seen as an ominous indication of things to come.
Additional attacks were averted, but Abu Ghaith continued to threaten Americans.
Threats against America
In a June 2002 statement, Abu Ghaith argued that “Al Qaeda has the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands.”
In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former CIA director George Tenet says that an alarmed US government “had to consider the possibility that Abu Ghaith was attempting to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction that might greatly exceed the death toll of 9/11.”
In an audio recording that was also released in June 2002, Abu Ghaith claimed credit on behalf of al Qaeda for the April 11, 2002, truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue. NBC News and the Associated Press reported that the cell responsible for the bombing had been in touch with al Qaeda leaders inside Iran.
After he was captured in 2013, Abu Ghaith told the FBI that he had been smuggled into Iran that same month.
A copy of Abu Ghaith’s statement to the FBI can be found at Downrange, a publication launched by Kronos Advisory.
Between June 2002 and April 2003, when Abu Ghaith says he was placed under house arrest by the Iranians, the al Qaeda spokesman continued to make provocative statements.
In July 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened more bloodshed. “Al Qaeda will organize more attacks inside American territory and outside, at the moment we choose, at the place we choose and with the objectives that we want,” he said, according to an account published at the time by the Associated Press.
On Oct. 8, 2002, an al Qaeda cell that was reportedly recruited and indoctrinated by Abu Ghaith opened fire on US Marines stationed on Kuwait’s Faylaka Island. One Marine was killed and another was seriously wounded.
Then, in November 2002, al Qaeda terrorists attacked an Israeli hotel, killing 13 people, and tried to down an Israeli jetliner in Mombasa, Kenya. Abu Ghaith claimed credit for that operation on behalf of al Qaeda the following month.
Also in December 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened additional attacks against the United States and Israel. Bin Laden’s spokesman warned the Muslim world of the “danger of what America and its allies are preparing against Iraq and its people,” which “is not limited to overthrowing the infidel regime and its dictator but is aimed at … Balkanizing this great country.”
In his statement to the FBI, Abu Ghaith claimed that his statements in the latter half of 2002 were unconnected to al Qaeda’s operations. But his claim does not ring true.
Al Qaeda has strict protocols for claiming responsibility for its attacks. That Abu Ghaith trumpeted the organization’s culpability in Tunisia and Kenya strongly suggests he was coordinating with al Qaeda’s most senior leaders at the time.
Admitted knowing Guantanamo detainee
Additional parts of Abu Ghaith’s statement to the FBI in 2013 are uneven and do not square with other intelligence collected by US authorities.
For instance, the al Qaeda spokesman admitted to FBI agents that he knew Fayiz al Kandari, a Kuwaiti who is detained at Guantanamo, but omitted key details from his testimony. US officials have concluded that Fayiz al Kandari was a well-connected al Qaeda member and ideologue who had direct access to Osama bin Laden. [For more on Fayiz al Kandari, see LWJ report: Judge finds that Kuwaiti Gitmo detainee was no charity worker.]
After his “initial presentment,” Abu Ghaith “stated that he will be 100% cooperative with interviewers whether or not he has a lawyer.”
Using his Blackberry, an FBI agent immediately showed Abu Ghaith a picture of Fayiz al Kandari, whom he recognized and identified. Abu Ghaith subsequently identified a picture of Anas al Kandari, a relative of Fayiz, as well.
Abu Ghaith said that the three of them “grew up in the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait together.” He admitted to the FBI that he taught Anas and knew Fayiz in Kuwait, but sought to downplay the extent of these relations.
Anas al Kandari was killed during the Oct. 8, 2002, attack on US Marines based on Faylaka Island. As explained by Stewart Bell in his book, The Martyr’s Oath, Anas and his fellow gunmen were recruited and indoctrinated by Abu Ghaith.
In his statement to the FBI, Abu Ghaith claimed that he only learned about the Faylaka Island incident through the media. There are good reasons to doubt his veracity.
While Abu Ghaith admittedly met with Anas and Fayiz in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, his testimony does not match other sources.
A leaked threat assessment prepared by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) for Fayiz al Kandari notes that the Gitmo detainee “received advanced sniper training, arranged by [bin Laden’s] guards, at the airport training camp in Kandahar.” Abu Ghaith, Anas al Kandari, and some of bin Laden’s sons also took part in this training, according to the JTF-GTMO file.
During his interview with the FBI, Abu Ghaith conceded that Anas al Kandari may have received some training, but claimed that Fayiz had not. Ghaith “did not believe that” Fayiz “attended a training camp in Afghanistan because” Fayiz “was like him (Ghaith), a spiritual preacher.”
JTF-GTMO concluded that Fayiz trained at al Qaeda’s al Farouq camp and the Khalden camp, in addition to this training alongside Abu Ghaith in Kandahar.
The FBI agents who questioned Abu Ghaith wondered how Fayiz and Anas al Kandari were able to stay in secure al Qaeda guesthouses, train in al Qaeda camps, and otherwise have access to the terrorist group’s resources. The FBI pointed out that “one could not simply show up without references or someone known/trusted by Osama bin Laden’s group vouching for the person.”
Ghaith “advised that he did not know if anyone had vouched for them.”
JTF-GTMO’s analysts came to the opposite conclusion. “It was probably [Fayiz al Kandari’s] association with Ghaith, along with detainee’s religious training, that allowed [Fayiz] to enter [bin Laden’s] inner circle,” the JTF-GTMO file reads.
Despite Abu Ghaith’s omissions, his statement is probably still helpful for US officials interested in building a case against Fayiz al Kandari. Abu Ghaith placed both Fayiz and Anas al Kandari in al Qaeda facilities prior to 9/11.
In any event, Abu Ghaith’s recruiting days for al Qaeda are now over.
Note: Parts of this article were previously published at The Weekly Standard.