WASHINGTON – The FBI and the CIA helped capture an alleged al-Qaida spokesman who was Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and have flown him to New York City to face terrorism-related charges, U.S. officials said.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was taken into U.S. custody in Jordan, where he was stopped while being deported from Turkey to Kuwait, his native country, under a scheme orchestrated by U.S. authorities. He is believed to have spent most of the last decade in Iran.
Abu Ghaith has been providing information to U.S. interrogators since his arrest, said a former U.S. official who was briefed on the case.
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday accuses Abu Ghaith of conspiracy to kill Americans, among other charges. It alleges that he “served alongside” bin Laden from May 2001 through part of 2002 and appeared on videos to praise the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and threaten further assaults.
“This arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice,” Attorney General. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in announcing the indictment.
Abu Ghaith, 48, is scheduled to be arraigned today before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York City. If convicted, he could face life in prison without parole.
His case is notable because he is only the second al-Qaida militant known to be captured overseas and brought to the United States for trial under the Obama administration, rather than be killed by a CIA or military drone strike. The first, a Somali, was interrogated for two months aboard a Navy ship off the coast of Africa before he was imprisoned in New York in July 2011 to await trial.
Abu Ghaith, who cemented his ties to bin Laden after marrying his oldest daughter, Fatima, has not played a significant role in al-Qaida in years, a U.S. official said.
In May 2001, according to the indictment, Abu Ghaith urged individuals at a guesthouse in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear “bayat,” or allegiance, to bin Laden. After 9/11, he was summoned by bin Laden and agreed to provide further assistance. The next morning, he appeared with bin Laden and others in a video and spoke on behalf of al-Qaida.
He warned the United States that a “great army is gathering upon you” and that the “nation of Islam” would fight “the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.”
In another video, which appeared Oct. 10, 2001, he praised the 9/11 terrorists who hijacked four jetliners and vowed more attacks would follow. “Americans should know the storm of the planes will not stop,” he said. “There are thousands of the Islamic nation’s youths who are eager to die, just as the Americans are eager to live.”
Such statements, plus his membership in al-Qaida, are enough to establish involvement in a conspiracy under U.S. law, said Ali Soufan, a former senior FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases.
“He’s a senior al-Qaida figure; there’s no question about that,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism analyst at RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research group. He was a member of the terrorist network’s management council, Jones said.
The Kuwaiti government stripped Abu Ghaith of his citizenship after the videos appeared. He later spent years under a form of house arrest in Iran, a U.S. official said.
Turkish media reported that he entered Turkey in January and was detained at the request of U.S. authorities, but then was set free because he had committed no crime in Turkey. He was later rearrested at a luxury hotel in Ankara for his deportation, the reports said.
Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, credited the CIA and FBI with catching the al-Qaida propagandist.
“Definitely, one by one, we are getting the top echelons of al-Qaida,” King said. “I give the administration credit for this: It’s steady, and it’s unrelenting, and it’s very successful.”
But the case also provided fresh fodder for a long-running debate over how terrorism suspects should be treated, where they should be incarcerated and how their cases should be adjudicated.
“We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy – the U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The president needs to send any captured al-Qaida members to Guantanamo.”
“If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn’t an enemy combatant, who is?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. He “should be going to Gitmo. He should be kept there and questioned.”
Human rights activists strongly disagreed. “Our nation’s track record of successfully prosecuting alleged terrorists in federal court is second to none,” said Raha Wala, a lawyer at Human Rights First.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.