WASHINGTON -- 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 Abu Ghaith indictment 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."
Mr. 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," Mr. 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."
Mr. 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 a U.S. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., in a statement said "al-Qaida leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States to stand trial." Saying U.S. courts are "not the appropriate venue," He said Mr. Obama should "send any captured al-Qaida members to Guantanamo." Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also spoke out against a U.S. civilian trial for Mr. 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 to the facility since it came in office.
The arrest of Mr. Abu Ghaith was disclosed at a time when the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, especially its heavy reliance on targeted killing operations, have come under intense Capitol Hill scrutiny. In recent days, the White House has been forced to disclose new details about the drone war and endure a Senate filibuster in the course of winning confirmation Thursday for the administration's new CIA director nominee, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
The first public confirmation of Mr. Abu Ghaith's capture 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," Mr. 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."
Mr. Abu Ghaith will be tried in the same district where Mr. 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.
Details on the sequence of Mr. Abu Ghaith's arrest remained murky Thursday, although reports in the Turkish press indicated that he had been captured there after being tracked by the CIA.