Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and his former chief spokesman, pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill Americans before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Abu Ghayth, 47, hands cuffed behind his back and wearing navy-blue prison garb, entered the plea through his defense lawyer yesterday before U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. The lower Manhattan courtroom was under heavy security with about a dozen court officers and deputy U.S. marshals lining the room’s perimeter. Kaplan scheduled the next hearing for April 8 and said he will probably set a trial date at that time.
Abu Ghayth is the most senior al-Qaeda member to face a civilian U.S. judge on charges stemming from the attacks. He was captured by U.S. agents after a decade-long manhunt as he sought to travel from Jordan to Kuwait. He is charged with conspiring with bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members in a global plot to kill U.S. nationals.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan said March 7 in a statement.
Abu Ghayth was taken into custody “a little before midnight on Feb. 28” and arrived in New York about 12 hours later, Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan said yesterday.
After the defendant waived the reading of the indictment in court, Kaplan took the rare step of reading excerpts aloud.
“On or before May 2001 to and including 2002, you conspired with others to kill United States nationals,” according to the indictment, the judge said.
Kaplan said Abu Ghayth was charged with bin Laden in the same case alleging conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens that was filed against the group’s leader in 1998.
“On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, you appeared with among others, Osama bin Laden and bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking on behalf of al-Qaeda,” Kaplan read. “You stated ‘a great army is gathering against you,’ and called upon the nation of Islam to ‘do battle against the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.’”
Abu Ghayth faces life in prison if convicted, prosecutors said.
Cronan said Abu Ghayth gave “extensive post-arrest statements, a report of about 22 pages,” after being captured by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Evidence against him includes video and audio recordings of the defendant which are in Arabic and must be translated, Cronan said.
“There may be some additional discovery, but we’ve produced the bulk of the evidence,” Cronan said.
The prosecutor said he would need more time to determine if additional evidence also includes classified material.
Kaplan yesterday agreed to appoint three federal defenders to represent the Abu Ghayth, Philip Weinstein, Martin Cohen and Jonathan Marvinny.
Abu Ghayth said through an interpreter that he wants to be known as “Mr. Sulaiman.”
“We are at the beginning of this case,” Weinstein told the judge. “To establish an attorney-client relationship, we met several times with our client prior to this proceeding. I suggest that we come back in 30 days and have a better idea.”
Weinstein previously represented Abduwali Muse, a Somali pirate accused of attempting to hijack the Maersk Alabama container ship in April 2009. Muse pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 33 years and nine months in prison.
Abu Ghayth is being held in on the high-security floor at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, the federal jail in lower Manhattan, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the information isn’t public.
The same facility once held Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the blind Muslim sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up U.S. landmarks including FBI headquarters in New York, the United Nations and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
Abu Ghayth is viewed as having been among al-Qaeda’s most influential surviving leaders since U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011.
Before the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, Abu Ghayth swore allegiance to bin Laden and agreed to support violent attacks against U.S. property and citizens, either military or civilian, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors allege that Abu Ghayth served alongside bin Laden, appearing on videos with him and speaking on behalf of the terrorist organization and its mission.
He warned that more attacks similar to those of 9/11 were imminent, the U.S. said. In May 2001, Abu Ghayth urged individuals at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
On the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden summoned Abu Ghayth to seem him and asked for his assistance, according to the government. A day later, he allegedly appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri on a video threatening that more attacks would come.
He advised Muslims, children and opponents of the U.S. “not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises,” the government said.
George Venizelos, head of the FBI’s New York office, 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,” Venizelos said in a statement. “He used his position to threaten the United States and incite its enemies.”
Abu Ghayth secretly entered Iran from Afghanistan in 2002, prosecutors said.
Turkish authorities, acting on CIA information, seized Abu Ghayth this year at an Ankara hotel, U.S. congressional and intelligence officials said. A Turkish court rejected a U.S. request for his extradition and released him on the ground that he hadn’t been charged with committing a 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 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.
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.
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.
He should be tried as an enemy combatant in a military tribunal, not as a criminal defendant in a civilian court, thy said.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said because of his relationship with bin Laden, Abu Ghayth is an enemy combatant and should be interrogated for intelligence gathering. In a military tribunal setting, the government wouldn’t have to “overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers,” McConnell said.
“Terrorists working to attack the United States are enemy combatants, and if captured should be placed in military custody where they can be interrogated,” he said in a statement.
Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, said the “broad consensus” among the Defense, State, Justice and Homeland Security departments favored a civilian-court trial. Prosecutors and the intelligence community concluded that such a trial wouldn’t impede intelligence-gathering, Earnest said yesterday in a statement.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, asked yesterday if the trial raises securities issues, said it doesn’t.
“If you are in a federal court here in New York, you go from the holding pen to the courtroom underground,” he said during his weekly radio appearance on WOR.
The decision belongs to federal officials, Bloomberg said, and the city can “provide them with any services they need.”
Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The decision to charge and prosecute Abu Ghayth in a federal court in New York may reflect prosecutors’ belief that they have sufficient evidence to imprison him for life without needing to rely on classified intelligence, said Michael M. Rosensaft, an ex-federal prosecutor at Katten Muchin Rosenmann LLP, a New York law firm.
The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in New York have been at the forefront of prosecutions of terrorists and al-Qaeda.
Charged in 1998
Bin Laden was first charged secretly in 1998 by prosecutors working for Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. The case was unsealed after the almost simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998.
The Manhattan federal courthouse has been the site of several high-profile terrorism trials. They include a group of men charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, two trials for Ramzi Yousef and the 2001 trial of four followers of bin Laden convicted in the embassy bombings case.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Islamic cleric accused of aiding al-Qaeda, is to stand trial next year before U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest.
Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi national, and Adel Abdel Bary, of Egypt, are to be tried in October before Kaplan. They are charged with participating with bin Laden in a global plot to attack U.S. nationals and facilities.
Plans for a Manhattan trial announced by the Obama administration in 2009 for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, were dropped following opposition from members of Congress led by McConnell.
The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, 98-cr-01023, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).