NEW YORK – With the surprise Friday appearance in a New York courtroom of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, the U.S. justice system’s way of handling of terrorism cases again landed in the court of public opinion.
Until now, alleged al-Qaida figures have been more likely to be blown apart by a Hellfire missile from a U.S. drone or to disappear into the netherworld of secret CIA or secretive military prisons before resurfacing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But on this occasion, Sulai- man Abu Ghaith, accused of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, was arraigned in a wood-paneled Manhattan federal courtroom, accompanied by three lawyers and witnessed by the media. The proceeding lasted just 15 minutes.
Wearing a prison smock and politely standing before Judge Lewis Kaplan, the meek-looking suspect was a far cry from his firebrand presence at the al-Qaida founder’s side in years past.
Intelligence officials and other experts say he is likely to have a vast trove of knowledge about the terrorist network’s central command but not much useful information about current plots.
Abu Ghaith fled with bin Laden when the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Prosecutors said he was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan in 2002. He lived there under house arrest until 2010. At that time, Western officials say, Iran brokered a deal with al-Qaida for the release of a diplomat, who had been kidnapped in 2008 in Pakistan, in exchange for Abu Ghaith and several members of bin Laden’s family. That agreement also allowed al-Qaida access throughout Iran.
While living in Iran, Abu Ghaith helped coordinate the flow of funding and foreign terrorist fighters in and out of Pakistan, Iraq and possibly Yemen.
It is believed that Abu Ghaith sought to enter Turkey through Iran within the past several months. Tipped off by the CIA, Turkish officials took him into custody but released him in late February without being able to charge him with a crime there.
A U.S. intelligence official said Abu Ghaith was being deported to Kuwait when he stopped in Jordan. He was captured there by the FBI and flown to the U.S. on March 1.
President Barack Obama has long argued that the kind of federal court hearing he is now getting is exactly the way justice should be done.
Obama even promised when first elected to close the Guantanamo prison camp down and to move all terrorism cases into civilian courts to be tried in public and with all due process.
But many disagree, arguing that militants in this shadowy struggle between al-Qaida sympathizers and the U.S. global presence do not deserve the same legal rights as Americans.
Obama, an enthusiastic proponent of drone assassinations, has himself sent deeply mixed messages.
As soon as the government revealed that Abu Ghaith had been spirited in a secret operation onto U.S. soil and put in front of a New York judge, the criticism began.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the civilian prosecution “makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
White House spokesman Joshua Earnest countered that there is “broad consensus” in justice, intelligence and national security agencies that Abu Ghaith belonged in a New York courtroom.
Asked whether the top priority of detaining Abu Ghaith was to bring him to justice or gather intelligence, Earnest said that federal courts could do both.
“We don’t have to choose,” Earnest said. “We’re able to do both, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Earnest pointed to successful trials in civilian court of other terrorism defendants, including convicted underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
However, those cases were not related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
An attempt in 2010 by the Obama administration to bring five alleged Sept. 11 plotters to the same Manhattan courthouse that Abu Ghaith saw Friday failed.
The building is just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, where the Twin Towers were destroyed in the attacks, and the prospect of having such prominent figures there sparked outrage.
Some of the families of Sept. 11 victims described the move as an insult, while city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, balked at what they said would be the security nightmare.
Ultimately, Obama was forced into an embarrassing climb-down and the five, including self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were shipped to Guantanamo — which, despite Obama’s promise, remains in operation.
Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First said the Abu Ghaith experience shows the right way.
“Today’s efficient arraignment is a far cry from the clumsy military commissions proceedings we see at Guantanamo,” she said Friday. “Today’s hearing took 17 minutes, the government had already turned over the bulk of its unclassified discovery and the judge announced that he will set a trial date next month.”
By contrast, 13 hours were needed for the initial processing of the alleged 9/11 plotters when they got to Guantanamo and no trial date has been set.
“The prosecution of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith clearly demonstrates that federal courts are the best venue for federal terrorism trials,” she said.