March 8 (Bloomberg) -- Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, is set to be the most senior al-Qaeda member to face a civilian U.S. judge on charges of conspiring to kill Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Abu Ghayth was captured by U.S. agents after a decade-long manhunt as he sought to travel from Jordan to Kuwait. Accused in an indictment of plotting with bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda from 1989 until now to kill U.S. nationals, he is to appear today in federal court in Manhattan.
“It has been 13 years since Abu Ghayth allegedly worked alongside Osama bin Laden in his campaign of terror and 13 years since he allegedly took to the public airwaves, exhorting others to embrace al-Qaeda’s cause and warning of more terrorist attacks like the mass murder of 9/11,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
“The memory of those attacks is indelibly etched on the American psyche,” and the indictment “is the latest example of our commitment to capturing and punishing enemies of the United States, no matter how long it takes,” Bharara said. Abu Ghayth, captured by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, faces life in prison if convicted, the government said.
Abu Ghayth, 47, is viewed as having been among the group’s most influential surviving leaders since U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011. He’s also the highest-ranking member of al-Qaeda brought to stand trial in a federal court in the U.S., according to the FBI.
Some Republican lawmakers, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the Abu Ghayth case, saying he should be tried as an enemy combatant in military tribunal, not as a criminal defendant in a civilian court.
Prosecutors allege that Abu Ghayth served alongside bin Laden, appearing with him and bin Laden’s then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking on behalf of the terrorist organization and in support of its mission. Abu Ghayth swore an oath of allegiance to bin Laden, called a “bayat,” agreeing to support violent attacks against U.S. property and citizens, either military or civilians, prosecutors said in the complaint.
Abu Ghayth, as a spokesman for al-Qaeda, warned that attacks similar to those of Sept. 11 would continue, the U.S. said. On Sept. 12, 2001, Abu Ghayth, with bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, spoke on behalf of al-Qaeda, warning the U.S.: “A great army is gathering against you.” He also called upon “the nation of Islam” to do battle “against the Jews, the Christians and the Americans,” prosecutors alleged.
He later gave a speech directed at the U.S. secretary of state, warning that “the storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm,” the U.S. alleged in the indictment. He advised Muslims, children and opponents of the U.S. “not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the apprehension of Abu Ghayth an “important milestone” in counterterrorism efforts.
“No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” Holder said.
Assistant Director-in-Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office George Venizelos said Abu Ghayth held a “key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.”
“He used his position to persuade others to swear loyalty to al-Qaeda’s murderous cause,” he said in a statement. “He used his position to threaten the United States and incite its enemies.”
He managed to smuggle himself from Afghanistan into Iran in 2002, prosecutors said.
This year, Turkish authorities, acting on information from the CIA, first seized Abu Ghayth at a hotel in Ankara, the Turkish capital, according to U.S. congressional and intelligence officials. A Turkish court rejected a U.S. request for his extradition and released him on the grounds that he hadn’t been charged with committing any crime in Turkey.
CIA officers located him after he arrived in Ankara with an Iranian passport and he asked Saudi Arabian diplomats to help his wife and children go to their country, according to the U.S. officials, who asked not to be named because intelligence matters are involved. His wife is a Saudi citizen.
Abu Ghayth was seized when he attempted to travel to Kuwait from Jordan, a country with which the U.S. maintains close ties, the U.S. officials said.
Kuwait had revoked Abu Ghayth’s citizenship in 2001, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Kuwait took the action after he was seen in video footage defending the Sept. 11 attacks and threatening reprisals for the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan.
The decision to charge Abu Ghayth in a federal court in New York rather than before a military tribunal may reflect that prosecutors think they have sufficient evidence to imprison him for life without needing to rely on classified intelligence, said Michael M. Rosensaft, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenmann LLP, a New York City law firm.
The Manhattan federal courthouse has been the site of several high-profile terrorism trials. Juries there convicted a group of men charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and several followers of bin Laden charged in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Islamic cleric accused of aiding al-Qaeda, is scheduled to stand trial next year before U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest.
Separately, Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi national, and Adel Abdel Bary, of Egypt, charged with participating with bin Laden in a global plot to kill U.S. nationals and attack American facilities, are scheduled to go on trial in October before U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan.
Plans announced by the Obama administration in 2009 to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court in Manhattan were dropped following opposition from members of Congress, led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Mohammed and four other accused terrorist plotters are instead being tried by a military tribunal at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Abu Ghayth’s arraignment is scheduled for 10 a.m. today in Kaplan’s courtroom.
“I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice,” U.S. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said in an e-mailed statement.
Other Republicans criticized the Obama administration for bringing the case in civilian court.
By “sneaking this guy into the country,” the administration is “clearly going around the intent of Congress,” Graham told reporters at a news conference called before the Justice Department announced Ghayth’s indictment. Congress has barred the administration from bringing enemy combatants held at the Navy’s base at Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.
Trying captured suspected terrorists in civilian court gives them “the same constitutional rights as an American citizen” and destroys “the ability to hold them under the law of war for intelligence gathering purposes,” Graham said.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in a Twitter comment, “We need to find out everything he knows --not give him the right to remain silent.”
Rosensaft, who worked in the terrorism and international narcotics unit of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, said in a phone interview that the decision on where and how to try bin Laden’s son-in-law rests on trade-offs among security, secrecy and rules of evidence, which are tighter under the rules for military tribunals.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, 13-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).