Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law has pleaded not guilty to plotting against Americans in his role as al-Qaida’s leading spokesman in a landmark case trying a terror suspect on US soil.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan about half a mile from the site of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. He was captured in Jordan in the past week.
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in US federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Charging foreign terror suspects in federal courts was a top pledge by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009 – aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open, and bringing Abu Ghaith to New York led to an outcry. Republicans in Congress do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the US, fearing that outcomes in a civilian jury trial are too unpredictable compared with a military trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the capture of Abu Ghaith, saying “no amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice”.
Mr Holder reluctantly agreed in 2011 to try self-professed al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Guantanamo Bay military court instead of a civilian court after a Republican backlash.
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaida, working alongside bin Laden and present leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher who urged followers to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
The day after the September 11 attacks, prosecutors say he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the “nation of Islam” to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans. A “great army is gathering against you”, Abu Ghaith said on September 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after the 2001 attacks. In 2002, under pressure as the US military and CIA searched for bin Laden, prosecutors said Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan.
Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defence University in Washington, described Abu Ghaith as one of a handful of senior al-Qaida leaders “capable of getting the old band back together and postured for a round of real serious international terror”.
“His capture and extradition not only allows the US to hold – and perhaps try – a reputed al-Qaida core survivor, further tarnishing the AQ core brand, but it also points to the dangers for those few remaining al-Qaida core refugees,” Mr Lynch said.
Abu Ghaith gave an “extensive post-arrest statement” of 22 pages and arrived in the US on March 1, assistant US attorney John P Cronan said.
Abu Ghaith nodded yes when asked, through an interpreter, if he understood his rights. He shook his head when asked whether he had money to hire a lawyer.
Bail was not requested and the judge set a date of April 8 for the trial to begin. Prosecutors said they expect it to last about three weeks.