Late last month a New York court found Sulaiman Abu Ghaith guilty of multiple charges of conspiring to kill Americans and supporting acts of terrorism. The trial and the verdict are an important step in the fight against terrorism and a crucial victory for the rule of law.
Critics had declared that a trial like this could not and should not be held.
Abu Ghaith was the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s spokesman. He recorded many messages that praised the group’s attacks and warned (or promised) more. During the trial, prosecutors showed a video of him, released Sept. 12, 2001, recorded in bin Laden’s cave in Afghanistan, in which he sat next to the al-Qaida leader and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, and proclaimed their war against the United States. Subsequent videos rallied the faithful and recruited more fighters.
While he was not charged with specific knowledge of or involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, the videos of Abu Ghaith backed allegations that he conspired to kill U.S. nationals and to provide material support or resources to terrorists, and that he provided material support or resources to terrorists.
Abu Ghaith was rumored to have spent most of the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks under house arrest in Iran. He was eventually arrested in Jordan — reportedly, at the request of the U.S. government when he was traveling from Turkey to Kuwait — and then extradited to the U.S. in early 2013. A little over a year later, he went on trial “appropriately” — according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after the verdict — in the shadows of where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
The trial took less than a month; the jury needed just six hours to find him guilty on three counts.
Each charge carries a maximum term of 15 years; sentencing will be on Sept. 9.
The trial is a victory for justice and the rule of law, and not merely because Abu Ghaith was the most senior member of al-Qaida to be found guilty in a U.S. civilian court. President Barack Obama had pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and end the program of military tribunals that had been established to try suspects captured during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
Consistent with that aim, early in the first Obama term, Holder had announced his intention to try senior al-Qaida members, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a federal court in New York City. That announcement triggered a hysterical backlash, as critics charged that the trials would be security nightmares, terrorist targets and ultimately unsuccessful because of the treatment of detainees before their trials.
Some worried that there would be no safe place to put the suspects if they were convicted.
While the first two allegations were spurious, the idea that the U.S. penal system could not house and hold such criminals was silly and was disproved by the number of convicted terrorists already serving sentences in maximum security prisons. The third charge was serious, however.
Since a number of detainees had been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” — what most people consider torture — while being held, there was concern that the evidence against them was either tainted and could not be used in court or could reveal intelligence sources and methods and therefore would not be used.
In addition, some critics counter that the extension of due process to these suspects will hamper effective prosecution and the suspects will use the courts as propaganda platforms. In fact, however, civilian courts have been used extensively in the past to put terrorists on trial.
Holder noted in his remarks after the conviction that civilian courts have tried “hundreds of other cases involving terrorism defendants.” The segregation of sensitive intelligence has never been a bar to successful prosecutions.
More importantly, the critics fail to acknowledge that the failure of the U.S. to adhere to its own standards of justice is a de facto victory for the terrorists. The reluctance of the U.S. to honor its own constitution only feeds the charges of mistreatment and hypocrisy. It lends credence to the terrorists’ accusation that U.S. policy is the problem — not the cowardly acts of individuals who target innocent civilians.
The U.S. system of justice can handle terrorist prosecutions. The transparency and protections afforded defendants do not tilt the scales of justice, but they ensure that the system is fair.
Civilian trials remind all observers of the single most significant factor in these cases: Prosecutors rely on an impartial system to deliver justice, while terrorists take justice into their own hands, arrogating the right to decide who is right and who is wrong — who lives and who dies — to themselves.
Their system is arbitrary, bloody and vicious. Up until now, the U.S. has tied its own hands by preferring a secretive and military-oriented effort to administer justice.
An open civilian trial is the best way to bring justice to bear against these defendants. Hopefully now there will be more such proceedings.