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Bin Laden’s son-in-law stands trial in federal court

March 9, 2014 at 6:53 PM EDT
The trial for Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, opened on Friday in New York, making him the most senior al-Qaida operative to be tried in federal court. Abu Ghaith is charged with conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to al-Qaida. How is his case playing out in the courtroom? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Chris Matthews, who is covering the case for the Wall Street Journal, about the details of the trial.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  An important trial is underway in federal court here in New York. The defendant: Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith.

For more, we are joined by Chris Matthews of The Wall Street Journal, he has been following the case.

So, this is the most senior Al-Qaeda operative tried in a federal court, you know, when there was talk about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed here, there was such a huge uproar, why not for this?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Hard to say. I don’t whether it’s that politicians have just forgotten about it or the public’s just moved on. Certainty this guy isn’t as conspicuous as KSM who planned 911 but for whatever reason the outcry that we saw over KSM hasn’t been there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ok, so what did this individual do, or allegedly do?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: So, he’s charged with three counts. One, conspiring to kill Americans and then providing material support to Al-Qaeda. And the material support is basically his words and his rhetoric. He was Al-Qaeda spokesman, he is on multiple propaganda videos inciting violence and recruiting fighters and the government says that is how he aided Al-Qaeda by recruiting fighters essentially.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Where did they catch him?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: They caught him—well it’s a little bit unclear—but basically it looks like he was arrested in Turkey and then transported to Jordan where he was handed over to US law enforcement officials. He had been in Iran for many years basically under house arrest and they arrested him- he was brought to the US in 2013.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So the prosecution’s already begun, what have we learned from them in what they think he’s responsible for? Did he have any role in planning September 11th?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: No. And they’ve been clear that he had no role in planning September 11th or any attacks. The strength of their case is basically his own words. They have already and will continue to show videos of him, including on September 12th 2001, taking responsibility, saying Al-Qaeda was responsible for 911 and encouraging Muslims to attack the US. And that constitutes material support. So they think they have a strong case. They just have to show these videos and let them him speak for himself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ok. And so, what’s the timeline here? How long does this process go on?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: They said they think it’ll go about a month. We’re about a week in, so you know, it could be sent to jury for deliberations by the end of March. It could drag on longer but they think about a month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And then, you said you’ve been in the courtroom, you said that this is a Judge that’s a bit no nonsense. He’s actually pushing sides quite a bit.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: He’s very much in control of the courtroom. He often will stop and ask witnesses questions himself. He has shut down  certain lines of questioning that he does not like. He is firmly in control of the courtroom.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are the sort of potential sentences that he could face with these charges?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: He could face life in prison. These are serious charges. Especially the conspiring to kill Americans charge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If there is a way that you can figure out what the defense’s strategy is, I know they haven’t already spoken yet, but how are they planning to defend their client?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: So during their opening statement the gist of it was they’re going to make this case, the prosecution is going to make this case about 911 and it’s not about 911, he had nothing to do with it. And they use the phrase over and over again, ‘all this case is about is words and association’. They also have sort of a unique theory that there is actually another Suleiman Abu Ghaith who is being detained at Guantanamo Bay

HARI SREENIVASAN: That this is the wrong guy?

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Exactly. They’re saying, part of the government’s case is that Abu Ghaith was at these camps and houses in Afghanistan giving speeches. And the defense is claiming actually it may have been the other Abu Ghaith at these houses giving these speeches but the judge has not allowed them to pursue that line of defense so it’s unclear how much of a defense case they’ll be able to make on that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chris Matthews from the Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Thanks for having me.