Abu Ghaith’s arrest was disclosed at a time when the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies — particularly its heavy reliance on targeted killing operations — has come under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. In recent days, the White House has been forced to disclose new details about the drone war, and endure a filibuster in the Senate, in the course of having the administration’s nominee to be the next CIA director, White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, confirmed.
The first public acknowledgment of Abu Ghaith’s capture on Thursday came from Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.
“I commend our CIA and FBI, our allies in Jordan, and President Obama for their capture of al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith,” King said in a statement shortly after reports by Turkish news media. “I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice.”
Abu Ghaith will be tried in the same district where Obama had sought to prosecute alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants for their roles in the attacks. That plan was derailed by intense congressional opposition, and they are being prosecuted at Guantanamo Bay.
By bringing Abu Ghaith to New York for trial, the administration followed the same course it took two years ago when it captured alleged al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame off the coast of Yemen. U.S. authorities had held and interrogated Warsame for two months aboard a Navy ship before his capture was disclosed.
Details on the sequence of Abu Ghaith’s arrest remained murky Thursday, although reports in the Turkish media indicated that he had been captured there after being tracked by the CIA.
A U.S. judge issued an arrest warrant for Abu Ghaith in December, and Interpol subsequently issued a “red alert” allowing the Turks to detain him, a Justice Department official said.
Turkish authorities detained him for several weeks, but apparently found no reason to hold him beyond the forged papers he had used to gain entry into the country, and declined to extradite him to the United States.
Instead, Abu Ghaith appears to have been in the process of being deported to his native Kuwait through Jordan, an arrangement that may have been discussed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who was in Turkey this month as part of his first overseas trip in that role.
Jordan has been a close counterterrorism ally of the United States, and its security services have long-standing connections to the CIA.
Despite his close ties to bin Laden, Abu Ghaith was not considered a senior operational figure in al-Qaeda, counterterrorism experts said.
“He was never an operational commander,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. “He was always an ideologue and cleric and chief spokesperson.”
Abu Ghaith appeared in a chilling video that was recovered by U.S. forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November 2001, in which bin Laden discusses the Sept. 11 attacks with a visiting cleric and mimics the collapse of the World Trade Center with a motion of his arms. In the video, bin Laden said the secrecy surrounding the operation was so strict that even Abu Ghaith was not informed in advance.
“The most important potential information [from Abu Ghaith] is about al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Iranian authorities,” Hoffman said.
The group’s presence in Iran, under what some have described as a form of house arrest, has puzzled U.S. authorities for years. A former senior U.S. counterterrorism official described the group as a “cell” that “does a lot of facilitation — moving people and money into Pakistan.”
Julie Tate and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.