The FBI and CIA helped capture an alleged Al Qaeda spokesman who was Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and have flown him to New York City to face numerous terrorism-related charges, according to U.S. officials.
Sulaiman abu Ghaith was taken into U.S. custody in Jordan, where he was stopped while being deported from Turkey to Kuwait, his native country, under a scheme orchestrated by U.S. authorities. He is believed to have spent most of the last decade in Iran.
He has been providing information to U.S. interrogators since his arrest, said a former U.S. official who was briefed on the case.
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday accuses Abu Ghaith of conspiracy to kill Americans, among other charges. It alleges that he “served alongside” Bin Laden from May 2001 through part of 2002 and appeared on videos to praise the Sept. 11 attacks and threaten further assaults.
“This arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in announcing the indictment.
Abu Ghaith is scheduled to be arraigned Friday before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.
His case is notable because he is only the second suspected Al Qaeda militant known to be captured overseas and brought to the United States for trial under the Obama administration, rather than be killed by a CIA or military drone. The first, a Somali, was interrogated for two months aboard a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of Africa before he was imprisoned in New York in July 2011 to await trial.
Abu Ghaith, 48, has not played a significant role in Al Qaeda in years, a U.S. official said.
In May 2001, according to the indictment, Abu Ghaith urged individuals at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear bayat, or allegiance, to Bin Laden. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was allegedly summoned by Bin Laden and agreed to provide further assistance. The next morning, the indictment says, he appeared with Bin Laden and others in a video and spoke on behalf of Al Qaeda.
He allegedly warned the U.S. that a “great army is gathering upon you” and that the “nation of Islam” would fight “the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.”
In another video, which appeared Oct. 10, 2001, he allegedly praised the Sept. 11 attackers and vowed that more would follow. “Americans should know the storm of the planes will not stop,” he allegedly said. “There are thousands of the Islamic nation’s youths who are eager to die, just as the Americans are eager to live.”
Such statements, plus his membership in Al Qaeda, are enough to establish involvement in a conspiracy under U.S. law, said Ali Soufan, a former senior FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases.
“He’s a senior Al Qaeda figure, there’s no question about that,” said Seth Jones, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank. He was a member of the terrorist network’s management council, Jones said.
The Kuwaiti government stripped Abu Ghaith of his citizenship after the videos appeared. He later spent years under a form of house arrest in Iran, a U.S. official said.
Turkish news media reported that Abu Ghaith entered Turkey in January and was detained at the request of U.S. authorities, but was then set free because he had committed no crime in Turkey. He was later rearrested at a luxury hotel in Ankara for deportation, the reports said.
The case provided fresh fodder for a long-running debate in Washington on how suspected terrorists should be treated, where they should be held and how their cases should be adjudicated.
“We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy — the U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The president needs to send any captured Al Qaeda members to Guantanamo.”
Human rights activists strongly disagreed. “Our nation’s track record of successfully prosecuting alleged terrorists in federal court is second to none,” said Raha Wala, a lawyer at Human Rights First.