An American who trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001 before losing his nerve testified Thursday how he encountered Osama bin Laden and the group's spokesman at a safe house — and that bin Laden hinted that a suicide attack on U.S. soil was in the works.
"Just know you have brothers willing to carry their souls in their hands," bin Laden told the witness, Sahim Alwan, and other recruits, Alwan said on the witness stand in federal court in Manhattan.
Asked what he thought that meant, Alwan responded, "To die."
His testimony came at the trial of bin 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 group afterward when it sought to recruit more militants to its cause.
Alwan, 41, 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.
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 travelled 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.
Bin Laden showed up in truck
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 harbour 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 U.S. 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.
But he was told that he needed to meet face-to-face with bin Laden first and that the al-Qaeda leader knew he was from the United States even though he and the others had been warned not to disclose that fact.
He testified that Bin Laden quizzed him about America, asking, "How are Muslims there? ... How are the youth there? What do they think of the operations?" By operations, Alwan said, he assumed bin Laden meant suicide missions.
"I just said, 'Oh we don't think about it,"' he testified.