NEW YORK: An American Al-Qaeda recruit told the New York trial of Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law Thursday how he met the late terror mastermind and the defendant in Afghanistan.
Sahim Alwan, one of six men from Lackawanna, New York, convicted of supporting a foreign terror group, was called by US prosecutors to testify against Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the most senior alleged Al-Qaeda member to face trial in a US federal court.
His testimony came at the trial of Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who’s accused of plotting to kill Americans by being a motivational speaker at Al-Qaeda training camps before the Sept. 11 attacks and as a spokesman for the terror group afterward when it sought to recruit more militants to its cause.
The 41-year-old witness, who served seven years in prison on his terror conviction, told the court that he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 and spent a week in an Al-Qaeda training camp in the mountains near Kandahar.
Alwan was among a half-dozen men who became known as the Lackawanna Six after their arrests on charges of providing material support to terrorists by attending bin Laden’s Al-Farooq camp in Afghanistan in 2001. He pleaded guilty in 2003 and served about seven years behind bars.
While he spent more than two hours providing riveting details about how Western Muslims traveled to Al-Qaeda camps, only a few minutes of his testimony dealt with his fleeting encounter with the defendant in spring 2001.
Abu Ghaith, 48, is on trial in Manhattan for conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to provide support and providing material support to terrorists.
He is best known for appearing in an Al-Qaeda propaganda video alongside bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri one day after the 9/11 attacks.
Alwan, who works in the cell phone business, identified Abu Ghaith in an old photograph, but couldn’t say “for sure” if he recognized the defendant or anyone else in the courtroom from his Afghan days.
The defendant, who has pleaded not guilty, sat impassively in a dark suit on Thursday, occasionally patting down oiled curls at the back of his neck.
Smartly dressed in a gray suit and tie, his hair neatly spiked and gelled, Alwan said he met Al-Qaeda mastermind bin Laden three times in Afghanistan.
The first time was at a walled Al-Qaeda guest house in the city of Kandahar, then at the training camp in the mountains and lastly before he returned to America.
Alwan said he travelled to Afghanistan in April or May 2001 via Toronto, London, Dubai and Pakistan with a small group of other people from Lackawanna.
Their cover story was spending time with the conservative Muslim preaching movement Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan.
But after a week and a half at a hotel in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, they flew to Quetta, the southwestern Pakistani city on the Afghan border.
The next day, Alwan said they crossed into Afghanistan, driving motorbikes to bypass the official border post while sending their ID and papers through by a taxi.
They spent 10 days at a guesthouse run by Arabs in Kandahar. It was there, he said, he stumbled upon bin Laden’s book “Al-Qaeda.”
The men spent time praying, playing volleyball, lounging around and reading until more recruits arrived.
They were shown an Al-Qaeda propaganda video about the 2000 bombing of a US Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in Yemen’s port of Aden that killed 17 sailors.
“I knew at that time I was in way over my head,” Alwan told the court.
He met Abu Ghaith at the guest house, where he was introduced as Suleiman Kuwaiti “a few days” after Laden’s separate visit, Alwan said.
It was nighttime and Abu Ghaith sat in the courtyard talking to “five or six men” about the concept of pledging allegiance to bin Laden and by extension to their Afghan host, Taleban leader Mullah Omar.
He next saw the defendant on TV after 9/11, when Abu Ghaith appeared next to bin Laden.
Testifying under subpoena, Alwan told jurors that he became an aspiring jihadist after worshipping at a mosque in Lackawanna, the western New York city where he grew up. In April of 2001, he traveled to Pakistan and crossed the border to Afghanistan, where he was directed to the safe house to wait for an assignment to a training camp.
While staying there, bin Laden showed up in a truck with an entourage of AK-47-toting men with masks on their faces, Alwan said. He testified that he recognized bin Laden as the FBI’s “most wanted guy.”
He also testified that Abu Ghaith showed up at the house days later and explained an Islamic oath, or “bayat.” He said the defendant told the men that if they swore allegiance to bin Laden, they were also expected to back the Taliban.
The recruits were shown a video depicting the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors, Alwan said. Prosecutors say the video was narrated by Abu Ghaith, and portions of it were shown to jurors Thursday.
After seeing the video and understanding who was behind the USS Cole attack and the bombings of two US Embassies in Africa in August 1998 that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans, he said, “I knew I was in over my head.”
Once at the camp, where bin Laden visited the trainees one day, Alwan informed his trainers that he wanted to go home. He said he even faked an ankle injury, hoping to be sent to Kandahar.