GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A U.S. military jury sentenced Usama bin Laden's media specialist to life in prison for terrorism, a victory for Guantanamo prosecutors who painted him as a hardened Al Qaeda operative during his war-crimes trial.
Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who made propaganda videos for bin Laden before being captured in December 2001, gave prosecutors a lot of help. The 39-year-old Yemeni told jurors he proudly volunteered to be a Sept. 11 hijacker and called America "the head of the infidels."
He acknowledged joining the Al Qaeda terror network, accused the U.S. of oppressing Muslims for 50 years and said "we will fight any government that governs America."
He then told jurors before his sentencing Monday that he volunteered to be the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks but bin Laden told him his role was to head Al Qaeda's propaganda machine.
"We are the only ones on Earth who stand against you," al-Bahlul said. He said the U.S. has only itself to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks. "Whoever said this happened out of nowhere is an idiot. You have started the war against us."
His attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said he wasn't surprised by the life sentence considering the defendant's comments before sentencing. "I think the 20th hijacker comment pretty much sealed the deal," he said. "But he might have gotten life anyway."
Al-Bahlul had previously called the military tribunal a "legal farce" and refused to mount a defense by boycotting the trial silently at the defense table. His military lawyer also did not speak in deference to his client's wishes, declining even to answer questions from the judge.
A jury of nine U.S. military officers deliberated for just under an hour before condemning al-Bahlul on Monday at Guantanamo's second war-crimes trial. He was convicted of 35 counts of conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism.
The jury, which announced its verdict earlier in the day, dismissed one count of conspiracy and one count of providing material support for terrorism.
The lead prosecutor, Army Maj. Daniel Cowhig, said al-Bahlul has shown no remorse or regret. "When will it be safe for this man to leave confinement? Never," Cowhig said.
Al-Bahlul was not accused of participating in the Sept. 11 attacks but prosecutors and witnesses said he was so close to bin Laden that he hooked up a satellite receiver so the pair could hear live radio coverage of the attacks as they huddled in Afghanistan's Khost province.
Prosecutors said he also acknowledged to interrogators that he was Al Qaeda's media chief, made propaganda videos that inspired terrorists to attack the U.S., and arranged for lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to swear a loyalty oath to the Al Qaeda chief.
Witnesses at his sentencing hearing included the father of a sailor killed in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole — which was featured in a video the military says al-Bahlul produced to train and inspire Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan.
Gary Swenchonis Sr., whose son Gary was killed in the attack, said he was devastated that al-Bahlul's video has been widely available on the Internet.
"It's pervasive," said Swenchonis, of Rockport, Texas, his voice thick with emotion. "That's what's so bad. That's what's so wrong."
Al-Bahlul, who was brought to Guantanamo in 2002, is the second prisoner to go through a war-crimes trial under the special military commissions system.
Former bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan was convicted in August and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. He is still at Guantanamo and will have completed his sentence by January 2009 with credit for time served.
A third prisoner, Australian David Hicks, reached a plea agreement that sent him home to serve a nine-month prison sentence.
The military has not yet decided where al-Bahlul will serve his sentence but for now he will be kept from the general population at Guantanamo.
U.S. officials have said they plan to prosecute about 80 of the 255 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, but critics of the tribunals say they doubt there will be any more trials. Both Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama have said they want to close Guantanamo.
"I suspect that's the last of the military commissions," said retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who resigned as chief prosecutor for the trials in October 2007 after clashing with his superiors.