Osama bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman abu Ghaith is depicted listening… (Associated Press, Elizabeth…)
NEW YORK — In jailhouse blues, hands cuffed behind his back, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden pleaded not guilty in Manhattan on Friday to a federal charge of conspiring to murder Americans — reigniting the debate over where alleged terrorists should be prosecuted.
Sulaiman abu Ghaith, a 47-year-old senior Al Qaeda leader who for the last decade had been hiding in Iran, now may become the first defendant to be tried in a U.S. civilian court on charges related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers were destroyed.
Abu Ghaith is also part of a broader political drama that once again pits the Obama administration, which eventually wants to close the prison for terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, against Republicans demanding its continued use.
Three years ago, the administration attempted to have five alleged Sept. 11 plotters tried in New York as well, only to be blocked by congressional legislation prohibiting any Guantanamo prisoners from being transferred to civilian courts.
Abu Ghaith was seized in Turkey recently and flown to the U.S.
"We're putting the administration on notice," warned Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "We think that sneaking this guy into the country, clearly going around the intent of Congress when it comes to enemy combatants, will be challenged."
But sources in the Department of Justice said they were confident the case against Abu Ghaith would pass muster in federal court. They said they reviewed classified information related to the case to ensure it could be properly handled.
They also alerted New York officials that the case was pending, hoping to avert the backlash that erupted in 2010 when Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. tried to get alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others moved from Guantanamo to the same courthouse in New York.
"There was a lot of due diligence done here," said one source close to the case.
Much of it appeared to have paid off.
"It's the federal government's choice," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, speaking to New Yorkers in his weekly radio interview.
He rejected any large security concerns, as were voiced the last time, saying, "If you are in federal court here in New York, you go from the holding pen to the courtroom underground."
Jim Riches, a former deputy New York fire chief whose police officer son died in the 2001 attacks, said it was equally important that Sept. 11 survivors and relatives of the dead finally get a local trial.
"The families haven't had any justice for years," he said. "We were promised justice. It's been anything but. It's just been a political fight."
Other Sept. 11 families agreed with Republicans in Washington that Abu Ghaith should not be tried in New York.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, said Holder had provided a platform for Abu Ghaith to espouse his views.
"He's going to make maximum use of that stage a few blocks from ground zero," she said. Of Holder, she said, he "has really made a hash of this."
Tim Sumner, whose brother-in-law, firefighter Joseph Leavey, was killed at the World Trade Center, warned that this "will come back to bite America."
In court, Abu Ghaith appeared thinner and older than he did in the videos and photographs that emerged through the years, which showed him espousing Al Qaeda propaganda through a microphone, often with a rifle nearby, and sitting beside Bin Laden. The turban he once wore was gone, revealing a balding head. The thick, black beard had gone gray. The flowing tunics were replaced by a prison jumpsuit.
He sat quietly beside his court-appointed attorney, Philip Weinstein, as U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan repeated some of Abu Ghaith's words from the videos back to him.
He is accused of swearing allegiance to Bin Laden and asking others to do so, and, on the morning after Sept. 11, appearing in a video with Bin Laden calling on the "Nation of Islam" to battle "the Jews, the Christians and the Americans."
During the arraignment, Assistant U.S. Atty. John P. Cronan announced the defendant had given a 22-page "extensive post-arrest statement" to authorities. He did not reveal the contents.
Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said a full interrogation of Abu Ghaith at Guantanamo would be more valuable than bringing him to justice in a U.S. court. Otherwise, Ayotte said, "we lose valuable intelligence that can be used to prevent future attacks — can be used to understand further who also is involved in Al Qaeda and what they're planning against our country."
Republicans also questioned whether the overarching conspiracy charge against Abu Ghaith was brought to keep the case out of Guantanamo. Stand-alone conspiracy cases are not considered war crimes and are not permitted in military tribunals.