NEW YORK—On Friday, a top member of al-Qaeda appeared in U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan on terrorism-related charges, a short walk from Ground Zero. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and spokesman for al-Qaeda, was captured through a CIA operation in Jordan about a week ago. Prosecutors said that Abu Ghaith spent the last 10 years in Iran up until his capture.
Abu Ghaith would be the closest bin Laden associate to be tried on U.S. soil. According to prosecutors, Ghaith appeared in a video on Sept. 12, 2001, alongside bin Laden and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, lauding the attacks and calling on the “nation of Islam” to wage war against Jews, Christians, and Americans. Abu Ghaith later warned Muslims to stay out of planes, saying, “The storms shall not stop.” The indictment alleges that he swore allegiance to bin Laden and al-Qaeda and “served al-Qaeda.” (Download a PDF of the official indictment.)
President Barack Obama had promised prior to his 2008 election to bring terror suspects to trial in U.S. courts, so they could have expanded habeas corpus rights. He argued that the military tribunal process and the indefinite detention of terror suspects undermined the integrity of the U.S. justice system. But he has faced insurmountable opposition from Congress.
Federal law currently prohibits funds for the transfer of detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay to the United States. Back in 2009 the Obama administration attempted to begin a civilian trial against the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in the same New York federal court, but Congress blocked the funds for his transfer to the United States. The administration had to revert to a military trial at Guantanamo, which is currently ongoing.
Abu Ghaith’s court appearance in lower Manhattan came about quickly and quietly. The United States captured him on Feb. 28, flew him to New York on March 1, and then the federal court arraigned him Friday. Because he wasn’t detained at Guantanamo, federal prosecutors dodged the congressional ban. And the court proceedings had already begun before any congressional opposition to his trial could take shape.
But on Friday the opposition had formed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the decision to use civilian courts, saying Abu Ghaith counted as an “enemy combatant” and thus should be in military custody.
“At Guantanamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers,” McConnell said in a statement. “From public reports it is clear that Abu Ghaith possesses valuable knowledge of al-Qaeda’s activities within Iran. Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans, and he likely possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies. He is an enemy combatant and should be held in military custody.”
“If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn’t an enemy combatant, who is?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters.
Congressional Republicans did praise the Obama administration for the capture of Abu Ghaith.
“Definitely, one by one, we are getting the top echelons of al-Qaeda,” said Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. “I give the administration credit for this: It’s steady and it’s unrelenting and it’s very successful.”
On Friday Abu Ghaith pled “not guilty” to a charge of plotting to kill Americans, and his next court appearance is April 8. The court assigned him three federal defense lawyers. Prosecutors said Ghaith had provided a 22-page statement to FBI agents. He is likely being held in a detention center in lower Manhattan that has held other terror suspects.
Though Ghaith’s capture and court appearance happened rapidly, the rest of the process is likely to be much slower. Past trials of terror suspects have dragged out for years. The Virginia-based trial against Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” from 9/11, lasted four and a half years. Moussaoui was finally sentenced to life without parole in 2006.