WASHINGTON – A senior al-Qaida leader and member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle was charged Thursday with conspiring to kill Americans in his role as the terror network’s top propagandist who lauded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and warned there would be more.
Officials said Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was born in Kuwait and was bin Laden’s son-in-law, was captured in Jordan during the last week. He will appear today in U.S. federal court in New York, according to a Justice Department statement and indictment outlining the accusations against Abu Ghaith.
“No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the statement. “To violent extremists who threaten the American people and seek to undermine our way of life, this arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice because we will do everything in our power to hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in American federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it immediately sparked an outcry from Republicans in Congress who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
“If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn’t an enemy combatant, who is?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. Abu Ghaith “should be going to Gitmo. He should be kept there and questioned.”
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaida, 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 Sept. 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.
Shortly afterward, Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that “the storms shall not stop – especially the airplanes storm” and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaida 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 Sept. 11.
In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. 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-Qaida 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 U.S. to hold – and perhaps try – a reputed al-Qaida core survivor, further tarnishing the AQ core brand, but it also points to the dangers for those few remaining al-Qaida core refugees,” Lynch said.
Abu Ghaith’s trial will mark one of the first prosecutions of senior al-Qaida leaders on U.S. soil. 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 have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open. Several GOP 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 will allow as a federal defendant on U.S. 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.
Graham, the South Carolina senator, accused the White House of sneaking Abu Ghaith into the U.S. to avoid any backlash from Congress.
Since Sept. 11, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. captured Abu Ghaith is still unclear.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the former GOP chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, credited the CIA and FBI with catching al-Qaida propagandist Abu Ghaith in Jordan within the last week. A Jordanian security official confirmed that Abu Ghaith was handed over last week to U.S. 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 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. U.S. intelligence officials in Washington and New York also declined to confirm details.
Associated Press writers Henry C. Jackson, Tom Hays in New York and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press