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During the second intifada, Cohen led a failed legal and legislative drive to stop U.S. foreign aid to Israel, a country he accuses of generating “a view of Jews worldwide that is unhealthy, that is dangerous, that is counterproductive, that creates problems.”
His sympathy lay with Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that now controls the Gaza Strip.
Cohen’s path to Hamas came through the defense of Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas leader, who was arrested at an airport in New York and faced extradition to Israel on terrorism charges. He was eventually deported to Jordan and is based today in Cairo. Cohen still considers Abu Marzook a friend, although since the military takeover of Egypt, Cohen has been banned from entry.
Working with Hamas, Cohen said he had never encountered any anti-Semitism or questions regarding his Jewish faith. “There are many Jews that look at me with a raised eyebrow and say ‘what the hell is Cohen doing?’” he said. “And there are many Arabs who at first look at Cohen with a raised eyebrow and an air of suspicion ‘what is this Jew all about?’ So I get it on both sides.”
Defending a client charged with being an al Qaeda senior member inevitably generates even more criticism. In recent weeks, Cohen has faced angry 9/11 families sitting in the courtroom, critical conservative media and Jewish activists. Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric who is married to bin Laden’s daughter, first came to the public eye in two videos filmed in the days after the 9/11 attacks. In the tapes, Abu Ghaith warned of further attacks and praised the suicide bombers who hijacked the airplanes and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people. He was arrested in Jordan last year and extradited to the United States.
Abu Ghaith is the first senior al Qaeda activist to stand trial in an American civilian court. In an unusual decision, Cohen called Abu Ghaith to the stand on March 19, thus providing a rare first-hand report of the events taking place in bin Laden’s cave in the hours after the September 11 attacks.
Abu Ghaith told the jury he was summoned to bin Laden’s cave immediately after the attacks. Bin Laden asked his son-in-law what he thinks America’s next step would be. Abu Ghaith said that the United States would not rest until bin Laden is dead and the Taliban in Afghanistan is thrown out of power.
“He admitted to certain things that we all knew the government would seize upon to support its case,” Cohen said of his client’s testimony, “Abu Ghaith could have just as easily said I don’t know or lied, but he didn’t.”
Cohen almost didn’t represent Abu Ghaith. During an initial hearing, Judge Lewis Kaplan informed the defendant that Cohen is under a federal investigation and is facing a federal tax indictment, relating to tax evasion charges and failure to report cash payments he allegedly received. “He may be sent to jail,” Kaplan warned Abu Ghaith when discussing Cohen’s situation, but the Al Qaeda defendant stuck with his choice of lawyers. Cohen in a statement on his website, called the Internal Revenue Service investigation and indictment an attempt to “wear me down” and to “ultimately silence me.”
In his closing argument yesterday, Cohen sought to keep it simple, urging jurors to look at the case in front of them and not at their wish to revenge the 9/11 attacks. “I’m a country lawyer,” Cohen said, “and as one federal prosecutor once said to me: ‘we know that, the question is which country?’”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman