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Osama bin Laden's son-in-law was due to appear in a New York court on Friday to face charges that he conspired to kill Americans in his role as al-Qaeda's top propagandist, as a landmark prosecution on US soil takes aim at one of the terror network's senior leaders.
Officials said Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was captured in Jordan over the last week. The Kuwait-born al-Qaeda spokesman, part of bin Laden's inner circle, lauded the attacks of September 11, 2001 and warned there would be more.
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaeda suspects in US federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Charging foreign terror suspects in American federal courts was a top pledge by President Barack Obama shortly after he took office in 2009 - aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans, however, have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open, and bringing Abu Ghaith to New York immediately sparked an outcry. Republicans in Congress do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States, fearing that outcomes in a civilian jury trial are too unpredictable, compared to a military trial.
Abu Ghaith will appear Friday in US federal court in New York, according to a Justice Department statement and indictment outlining the accusations against Abu Ghaith.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the capture of the international fugitive on Thursday, saying “no amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America's enemies to justice.”
Holder reluctantly agreed in 2011 to try self-professed al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Guantanamo Bay military court instead of a civilian court after a fierce Republican backlash.
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaeda, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher and urged followers that month to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
The day after the September 11 attacks, prosecutors say he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the “nation of Islam” to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A “great army is gathering against you,” Abu Ghaith said on September 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Shortly afterward, Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that “the storms shall not stop - especially the airplanes storm” and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaeda allies to stay out of planes and high-rise buildings. In one video, he was sitting with bin Laden in front of a rock face in Afghanistan. Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after the 2001 attacks.
In 2002, under pressure as the US military and CIA searched for bin Laden, prosecutors said Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan.
Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, described Abu Ghaith as one of a small handful of senior al-Qaeda leaders “capable of getting the old band back together and postured for a round of real serious international terror.”
“His capture and extradition not only allows the US to hold - and perhaps try - a reputed al-Qaeda core survivor, further tarnishing the AQ core brand, but it also points to the dangers for those few remaining al-Qaeda core refugees,” Lynch said.
Several Republican lawmakers on Thursday said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo, where he could be questioned more thoroughly than his lawyers likely would allow as a federal defendant on US soil.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a court in America but could potentially yield more information to prevent future threats.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham accused the White House of sneaking Abu Ghaith into the US to avoid any backlash from Congress.
“If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn't an enemy combatant, who is?” Abu Ghaith “should be going to Gitmo. He should be kept there and questioned.”
Since 2001, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in US federal courts, according to watchdog group Human Rights First, which obtained the data from the Justice Department through a Freedom of Information Act request.
By comparison, of the thousands of detainees who were swept up shortly after the terror attacks and held at Guantanamo Bay, only seven were convicted by military tribunals held at the US Navy base in Cuba, the watchdog group said. The vast majority have been sent back overseas, either for rehabilitation or continued detention and prosecution.
Exactly how the US captured Abu Ghaith is still unclear.
Congressman Peter King, the former Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, credited the CIA and FBI with catching al-Qaeda propagandist Abu Ghaith in Jordan within the last week. A Jordanian security official confirmed that Abu Ghaith was handed over last week to US law enforcement officials under both nations' extradition treaty. He declined to disclose other details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that Abu Ghaith was caught on his way to Kuwait, shortly after leaving Turkey.
The newspaper said that Abu Ghaith was taken into custody more than a month ago at a luxury hotel in in Ankara, the Turkish capital. But Turkish officials decided he had not committed any crime in Turkey and released him, the newspaper reported.
In Ankara, Turkish officials refused to confirm Abu Ghaith's deportation or his capture in Jordan to The Associated Press. US intelligence officials in Washington and New York also declined to confirm details. - Sapa-AP