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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.
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.
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.
- Meeting with bin Laden -
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 bin 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, Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
He next saw the defendant on TV after 9/11, when Abu Ghaith appeared next to bin Laden.
- Life at Al-Qaeda camp -
Alwan also spoke in detail about the tented Al-Qaeda training camp with a mosque and clinic, which he said was a "two- to three-hour" minibus ride from Kandahar.
Days began with dawn prayers. They read the Koran, had breakfast and did exercises. After lunch, there were more prayers, rest time and training class.
But Alwan said he was desperate to leave and his cell leader eventually negotiated his exit. Alwan then retraced his steps back to Pakistan and a flight to Toronto.
At his final meeting with bin Laden, Alwan said the Al-Qaeda leader asked what American Muslims thought about suicide missions.
"We don't think about it," Alwan recalled replying.
Bin Laden, wearing his trademark white headdress and gown, with a tan cloak, shook his hand and said "God be with you," ending the meeting after a few minutes.
Alwan returned to the United States in June 2001 and said he was approached by the FBI a few weeks later.
He was sentenced in 2003 and released early in July 2010 after cooperating with the government.