Osama bin Laden's son-in-law pleaded not guilty yesterday to plotting against Americans in his role as al-Qaeda's top spokesman, as a landmark case trying a terror suspect on US soil moves forward.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea through a lawyer in a Manhattan federal court, to one count of conspiracy to kill American citizens.
Abu Ghaith's trial is one of the first prosecutions of senior al-Qaeda leaders on US soil. The case marks a legal victory for the administration of President Barack Obama, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaeda suspects in US federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America's enemies to justice," US Attorney General Eric Holder said. "To violent extremists who threaten the American people and seek to undermine our way of life, this arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice because we will do everything in our power to hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law."
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaeda suspects in US federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it sparked an outcry from Republicans in Congress, who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the US.
"If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn't an enemy combatant, who is?" Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said. Abu Ghaith "should be going to Gitmo. He should be kept there and questioned".
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaeda, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith, who is a former mosque preacher and teacher, urged followers that month to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
A day after the September 11 attacks, prosecutors said he appeared with bin Laden and Zawahiri, calling 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, prosecutors said.
Later Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that "the storms shall not stop - especially the planes storm", and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaeda allies to stay out of planes and high-rises. In one video, he was sitting with bin Laden in Afghanistan. Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after September 11.
Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defence University in Washington, described Abu Ghaith as one of a small handful of senior al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda core survivor, further tarnishing the AQ core brand, but it also points to the dangers for those few remaining al-Qaeda core refugees," Lynch said.
Exactly how the US captured Abu Ghaith is still unclear.
Congressman Peter King of New York, the former Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, credited the CIA and FBI with catching him in Jordan recently.
A Jordanian security official confirmed that Abu Ghaith was handed over last week to US officials under both nations' extradition treaty. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet said Abu Ghaith was caught on his way to Kuwait, shortly after leaving Turkey.
It said Abu Ghaith was taken into custody more than a month ago at a luxury hotel in Ankara. But Turkish officials decided he had not committed any crime in Turkey and released him.
Turkish officials refused to confirm Abu Ghaith's deportation. US intelligence officials also declined to confirm details.
Since 2001, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in US federal courts, according to the group Human Rights First.