A former spokesman for al-Qaeda and son-in-law of its founder, Osama bin Laden, was captured overseas and secretly brought to New York this month to face a criminal trial for allegedly conspiring to kill Americans, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was initially detained in Turkey last month but was taken into U.S. custody in Jordan while he was being deported to Kuwait, U.S. officials said. He is expected to appear in federal court Friday in the Southern District of New York.
“It has been 13 years since Abu Ghaith 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,” Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said after the indictment against Abu Ghaith was unsealed Thursday. “Today’s action is the latest example of our commitment to capturing and punishing enemies of the United States, no matter how long it takes.”
Abu Ghaith, thought to be in his late 50s, was part of al-Qaeda’s inner circle before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and cemented his connections to the terrorist network’s leader by marrying bin Laden’s oldest daughter, Fatima. In videos and statements posted on Web sites, he celebrated the success of the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and warned that al-Qaeda was entitled to kill millions of additional Americans and employ chemical and biological weapons.
“The storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm,” Abu Ghaith said after the attacks, according to the indictment. He advised Muslims, children and opponents of the United States “not to board any aircraft and not to live in high-rises.”
Abu Ghaith will become the closest relative of bin Laden — who was killed nearly two years ago by U.S. commandos in Pakistan — to face trial in an American court. The case marks a rare instance during the Obama administration in which a senior terrorism suspect has been captured overseas and taken into U.S. custody rather than killed.
U.S. officials said Abu Ghaith was part of a group of al-Qaeda operatives who had taken refuge in Iran, adding that he could prove to be a source of intelligence on that cell’s routing of money and recruits to the terrorist network’s base in Pakistan.
The decision to bring Abu Ghaith, a native of Kuwait, to New York reignited the debate about the disposition of al-Qaeda suspects, with senior Republicans in Congress denouncing the decision to try him in a civilian criminal court rather than a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “al-Qaeda leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States to stand trial.” Saying that U.S. courts are “not the appropriate venue,” Rogers said President Obama should “send any captured al-Qaeda members to Guantanamo.”
Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said they oppose a civilian trial in the United States for Abu Ghaith.
Although the Obama administration has been unable to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where 166 detainees remain held, it has not moved any suspects to the facility since it came into office.
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.