NEW YORK — It was movie time at the guesthouse in Afghanistan, but this was no regular guesthouse, and it was no regular movie.
Once you checked in, you couldn’t leave. Osama bin Laden was a visitor. Rooms were stocked with al-Qaida books. And attendance was mandatory when staff wheeled in a TV in the spring of 2001 and showed “The Destruction of the American Destroyer USS Cole,” about the October 2000 attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
One of the young men watching the movie was Sahim Alwan, a witness in the trial of alleged al-Qaida propagandist Sulaiman abu Ghaith, which enters its second week Monday.
Alwan testified last week to hearing Abu Ghaith urge allegiance to bin Laden in the months before Sept. 11, 2001. His testimony is expected to end Monday, and the trial then shifts to London, where an accomplice to would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid is scheduled to testify via a video feed.
Prosecutors say Alwan and the London witness, Saajid Badat, will show that Abu Ghaith was in bin Laden’s inner circle and knew of plots against U.S. targets. Abu Ghaith faces life in prison if convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and other terrorism charges.
A conviction is crucial to bolstering the Obama adminstration’s view that high-profile terrorism suspects should be tried in U.S. civilian courts instead of at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Abu Ghaith’s case is the first stemming from the 9/11 attacks to bypass Guantanamo and land in a U.S. courthouse. Prosecutors say he is the highest-ranking al-Qaida member to go on trial in this country since 9/11.
But from the witness stand Thursday, Alwan shed little light on Abu Ghaith’s activities in Afghanistan, other than to say he had heard the Kuwaiti-born cleric urge others to pledge loyalty to bin Laden. When Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan asked Alwan to stand up and point to anyone he recognized from his brief time in Afghanistan, Alwan did not gesture toward the defendant.
He did, however, offer a look at life inside al-Qaida’s recruiting system, a life that Alwan decided was not for him as he watched the film about the Cole bombing.
“I knew by that time I was way in over my head,” said Alwan, 41, who began cooperating with the government after his arrest in 2002 on charges of providing material support to al-Qaida. He was released from prison in 2010.
Alwan was one of the Lackawanna Six, a group of Muslims from outside Buffalo, N.Y., who attended a mosque together and who traveled to Pakistan in April 2001.
Alwan said he thought he was going on a religious mission, but shortly after arriving in Quetta, the group was driven to Afghanistan and dropped at an al-Qaida-run guesthouse in Kandahar.
It was there, Alwan said, that he realized he was headed for a terrorist training camp.
While waiting to be taken to camp, guesthouse residents and staff would debate the use of suicide missions and discuss rumors that “something was going to happen,” Alwan said. One day, bin Laden came to visit, shaking each man’s hand and sitting on the floor with them.
A recruit asked the al-Qaida leader about speculation that an operation was in the works. “Just know you have brothers willing to carry their souls in their hands,” Alwan said bin Laden replied.
Another day, a minibus carried Alwan and 10 to 12 other men to a training camp marked by a small billboard with a verse of the Koran on it. The men were assigned to tents, given camouflage uniforms and launched into six weeks of “basic training” that included lessons in how to take apart and reassemble a rifle.
They were limited to one sack of their own belongings, said Alwan, who recalled camp guards seizing one of his two bags of cough drops.
Alwan said he began plotting to get out of camp. He faked an ankle injury in hopes he’d be sent back to Kandahar, but the ruse failed. He appealed to the man who had met him at the Lackawanna mosque and led him to Afghanistan, Kamal Derwish.
“I told him I wanted to get out,” Alwan said.
Eventually, Alwan was permitted to return to New York, but not before a final meeting in Kandahar with bin Laden. Alwan said bin Laden shook his hand, asked him about U.S. Muslims’ attitudes toward suicide bombings, then sent him on his way, saying, “God be with you.”
Alwan faces cross-examination Monday. After that, prosecutors will present Badat, who lives in Britain. He cannot testify in New York because he is under U.S. indictment stemming from his admitted involvement in a terrorist plot.
Abu Ghaith’s defense attorneys say the government’s use of videos and witnesses with checkered pasts shows they have no case against their client, who is married to one of bin Laden’s daughters.
“If this is the witness who is going to put the meat on those bones, he just doesn’t do it,” defense attorney Geoffrey Stewart said after Alwan’s testimony Thursday.
Badat pleaded guilty in Britain in 2005 to conspiracy to destroy a U.S.-bound aircraft by hiding a bomb in his shoe. He was released from prison in 2010.
Badat backed out of his bomb plot, but his co-conspirator, Richard Reid, did not. Reid was arrested in December 2001 after trying to set off an explosive hidden in his shoe on a Paris-Miami flight. He is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.