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A former spokesman for al-Qaida and son-in-law of its founder, Osama bin Laden, was captured overseas and secretly brought to New York this month to face a criminal trial for allegedly conspiring to kill Americans, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was initially detained in Turkey last month but was taken into U.S. custody in Jordan while he was in the process of being deported to Kuwait, according to U.S. officials. He is expected to appear in federal court today in the Southern District of New York.
"It has been 13 years since Abu Ghaith allegedly worked alongside Osama Bin Laden in his campaign of terror, and 13 years since he allegedly took to the public airwaves, exhorting others to embrace al Qaida's cause and warning of more terrorist attacks like the mass murder of 9/11," Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said after the indictment against Abu Ghaith was unsealed Thursday. "Today's action is the latest example of our commitment to capturing and punishing enemies of the United States, no matter how long it takes."
Abu Ghaith, believed to be in his late 50s, was part of al-Qaida's inner circle before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and cemented his ties to the terrorist network's leader by marrying bin Laden's oldest daughter, Fatima. In videos and statements posted on websites, he celebrated the success of the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and warned that al-Qaida was entitled to kill millions of additional Americans and employ chemical and biological weapons.
"The storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm," Abu Ghaith said after the attacks, according to the indictment. He advised Muslims, children, and opponents of the United States "not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises."
Abu Ghaith will become the closest relative of bin Laden - who was killed nearly two years ago by U.S. commandos in Pakistan - to face trial in an American court. The case also marks a rare instance during the Obama administration in which a senior terrorism suspect has been captured overseas and taken into U.S. custody rather than killed.
U.S. officials said Abu Ghaith was part of a group of al-Qaida operatives who had taken refuge in Iran, adding that he could prove to be a source of intelligence on that cell's routing of money and recruits to the terrorist network's base in Pakistan.
The decision to bring Abu Ghaith, a native of Kuwait, to New York reignited the debate over the disposition of al-Qaida suspects, with senior Republicans in Congress denouncing the decision to try him in a civilian criminal court rather than a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that "al-Qaida leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States to stand trial." Saying that U.S. courts are "not the appropriate venue," Rogers said Obama should "send any captured al-Qaida members to Guantanamo."
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said they also opposed a civilian trial in the United States for Abu Ghaith.
Although the Obama administration has been unable to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where 166 detainees remain held, it has not moved any more suspects into the facility since it came into office.
The arrest of Abu Ghaith was disclosed at a time when the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policies - particularly its heavy reliance on targeted killing operations - has come under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. In recent days the White House has been forced to disclose new details about the drone war, and endure a filibuster in the Senate, in the course of getting the administration's nominee to be the next CIA director, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, confirmed.
The first public confirmation of Abu Ghaith's capture on Thursday came from Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of a House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.
"I commend our CIA and FBI, our allies in Jordan, and President Obama for their capture of al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith," King said in a statement shortly after reports by Turkish news media. "I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice."
Abu Ghaith will be tried in the same district where Obama had sought to prosecute alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants for their role in the attacks. That plan was derailed by intense congressional opposition, and they are being prosecuted at Guantanamo Bay.
By bringing Abu Ghaith to New York for trial, the administration followed the same course it took two years ago when it captured alleged al-Qaida operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame off the coast of Yemen. Warsame was held and interrogated for two months by U.S. authorities aboard a U.S. Navy ship before his capture was disclosed.
Details on the sequence of Abu Ghaith's arrest remained murky on Thursday, although reports in the Turkish press indicated that he had been captured there after being tracked by the CIA. Turkish authorities detained him for a month or more, but apparently found no cause for holding him beyond the forged papers he had used to gain entry into the country, and declined to extradite him to the United States.
Instead, Abu Ghaith appears to have been in the process of being deported to his native Kuwait through Jordan, an arrangement that may have been discussed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Turkey last month as part of his first overseas trip in office.
Jordan has been a close counterterrorism ally of the United States, and its security services have long-standing ties to the CIA.
Despite his close ties to bin Laden, Abu Ghaith was never regarded as a senior operational figure in al-Qaida, according to counterterrorism experts.
"He was never an operational commander," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. "He was always an ideologue and cleric and chief spokesperson."
Abu Ghaith appeared in chilling video that was recovered by U.S. forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November 2001, in which bin Laden discusses the Sept. 11 attacks with a visiting cleric and mimics the collapse of the World Trade Center with a motion of his arms. In that video, bin Laden says that the secrecy surrounding the operation was so strict that even Abu Ghaith was not informed in advance.
"The most important potential information (from Abu Ghaith) is about al-Qaida's relationship with the Iranian authorities," Hoffman said.
The group's presence in Iran, under what some have described as a form of house arrest, has puzzled U.S. authorities for years. A former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official described the group as a "cell" that "does a lot of facilitation - moving people and money into Pakistan."