By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Suleiman Abu Ghaith admitted that months before al Qaeda's 2001 hijacked jet attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he promised Osama bin Laden he would be a spokesman for the group, an FBI agent testified on Thursday in a U.S. court.
At Abu Ghaith's trial on terrorism charges, agent Michael Butsch said he interviewed the suspect for several hours after his arrest in February, 2013. Butsch said Abu Ghaith told him then that bin Laden invited him in July 2001 to join al Qaeda.
Butsch said Abu Ghaith recalled that he told bin Laden he was not a soldier, but a religious "scholar and an orator," and agreed to serve as al Qaeda's spokesman. At the time, al Qaeda was preparing to carry out the 9/11 attacks.
Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric who later became a son-in-law to bin Laden, is accused of conspiring to kill Americans.
Prosecutors say he was a key al Qaeda recruiter and spokesman after the 9/11 attacks. They have shown jurors in Abu Ghaith's trial videos from October 2001 in which Abu Ghaith warned, "The storm of airplanes will not stop."
Lawyers for Abu Ghaith have said the government cannot prove he was aware of any plots against the United States.
Abu Ghaith, 48, one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda-linked figures to go on trial in the United States for crimes related to the 9/11 attacks, faces life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.
His interrogation occurred aboard a Gulfstream jet bound for New York soon after he was handed over to U.S. officials in Jordan, according to court documents. Butsch, who led the interrogation, said that Abu Ghaith waived his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present. The agent said Abu Ghaith told him, "You will hear things of al Qaeda that you never imagined."
Abu Ghaith's lawyers sought to suppress the statements made on the plane, saying he cooperated "out of a combination of disorientation, fear, isolation, fatigue and sensory deprivation." But U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the trial, denied that request.
Butsch described the interrogation as "a respectful, relaxed conversation," during which Abu Ghaith was allowed breaks to pray and rest. The agent testified that over the roughly 14 hour flight, Abu Ghaith said he traveled to Afghanistan a few months before 9/11 because he was interested in the movements of Islamic fighters and wanted to observe the Taliban's rule.
Butsch testified that Abu Ghaith said that after arriving in Afghanistan, he was summoned to meet bin Laden, who had known of Abu Ghaith and "took a liking to him," Butsch said.
While Abu Ghaith declined to join al Qaeda, he said he agreed to a "mini-bayat," or partial pledge to bin Laden, which involved recording propaganda videos, Butsch testified.
Butsch said Abu Ghaith told him that he crafted a speech on September 12 around bullet points bin Laden provided. Jurors viewed the video in which Abu Ghaith said: "The American people must know that they bear full responsibility" for the attacks.
Under questioning from Zoe Dolan, a lawyer for Abu Ghaith, Butsch said he addressed Abu Ghaith as "Sheikh," a respectful term, and at one point complimented him on his muscular biceps, calling them "nice pipes."
"He said, 'I got that from doing a lot of push-ups,'" Butsch said.
Dolan, who speaks Arabic, focused many of her questions on the translation of Abu Ghaith's statements aboard the flight, asking Butsch if he knew whether every word was interpreted accurately. Butsch, who does not speak Arabic, said he did not know.
"Do you know whether there's a word in Arabic that means 'mini,'"? Dolan asked, referring to the "mini-bayat" reference and eliciting laughs from some in the courtroom.
"I don't know, ma'am," Butsch said.
Dolan sought to undermine the government's contention that Abu Ghaith was a top-tier member of al Qaeda following 9/11.
"Didn't Suleiman Abu Ghaith tell you he was close to Osama bin Laden, but not a member of al Qaeda?" she asked.
"He did, ma'am," Butsch said.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 98-cr-01023.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by David Gregorio)