NEW YORK – Confronted by a prosecutor, an Islamic cleric accused of supporting terrorist operations in Yemen and in the United States tried Tuesday to soften his most incendiary statements about the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden and a 1998 kidnapping of 16 tourists in Yemen in which four hostages were killed.
Many answers 55-year-old Mustafa Kamel Mustafa gave at his Manhattan trial to questions posed by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan came reluctantly, with Mustafa criticizing the prosecutor for what he said was a "cut-and-paste" effort to mischaracterize statements.
"Try to concentrate. Ask one at a time," he chided Cronan, shortly before U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest admonished Mustafa for failing to answer questions properly.
"We do need to obey the rules of cross examination," she said. "Don't make speeches."
"Sir, I will be asking the questions of you," Cronan said pointedly when Mustafa tried repeatedly to answer a question with a question of his own.
Cronan for the most part ignored Mustafa's insults as he used the testimony as an opportunity to replay audio of statements the government believes best support charges that Mustafa conspired to aid terror organizations, including al-Qaida, by providing a satellite phone to the Yemen hostage takers, by trying to open a training camp in Bly, Oregon, and by sending men to training camps in Afghanistan.
Cronan asked if Mustafa had praised the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We were all happy," Mustafa said, explaining that attitudes toward Palestine and foreign policies led to a feeling of euphoria among some people after the attacks.
Mustafa, educated as a civil engineer, said he called for an investigation of the attacks and questioned whether explosives might have been responsible for the fall of the buildings.
"Plenty of people at the mosque and al-Qaida hated me for my statements about 9/11," he said.
Cronan noted he had stated publicly that he loved bin Laden and asked if that was still so.
"For the good in him," Mustafa said, though he also said bin Laden's 1998 fatwa stating that Americans should be killed wherever they are found was "a piece of nonsense" and he believed bin Laden was undisciplined.
Mustafa conceded he told an ex-hostage from the Yemen kidnapping who interviewed him at his London mosque while writing a book that the attacks were "Islamically justified."
When Cronan asked him if he said in an interview a month after the hostage taking that foreign visitors to Yemen were "like dumb animals, whoever imprisons them can do what he likes with them," Mustafa responded with a question: "Where is the clip?"
As he backtracked from some statements, Mustafa had various excuses, saying he gets tired or that his diabetes interferes with his thinking.
"I'm not trying to justify anything. ... I'm just saying my main language is Arabic," Mustafa said.
Mustafa, extradited in 2012 from England, also denied knowing Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid, both of whom reportedly had attended London's Finsbury Park Mosque in the 1990s.