Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, appeared in front of a Manhattan judge Friday and pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to kill Americans.
Abu Ghaith, who has been characterized as an Al Qaeda spokesperson and propagandist, barely spoke inside United States District Court, just blocks away from the World Trade Center site, and allowed his lawyer to inform the court of his not guilty plea, according to reports. He will be held in federal custody.
Abu Ghaith faces life in prison if found guilty.
The charges against Abu Ghaith came to light Thursday when officials unsealed an indictment describing alleged meetings with bin Laden and speeches intended to inspire others to battle against “the Jews, the Christians, and the Americans,” officials said.
“No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “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.”
Law enforcement officials described Abu Ghaith as a key resource for Al Qaeda. He spoke on behalf of the organization and once stated: “[a] great army is gathering against you,” referring to America, officials said, and warned, “the storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm.”
FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos compared Abu Ghaith’s position to that of a consigliere in a mob family.
“He used his position to threaten the United States and incite its enemies,” Venizelos added.
It doesn’t appear that Abu Ghaith participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks but officials said he was summoned by bin Laden on the eve of their execution and agreed to assist the Al Qaeda leader. The next day, he allegedly appeared with bin Laden during a speech and levied warnings at America, officials said.
Officials didn’t disclose when or where Abu Ghaith was arrested but multiple reports say he was recently apprehended in Turkey.
The decision to hold his trial in Manhattan drew strong criticism from elected officials and reignited the debate regarding prosecuting Al Qaeda members, or others affiliated with terrorist organizations, in civilian court.
“While a federal court trial of Abu Ghaith in lower Manhattan would not present the same security issues as a trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I strongly believe as a matter of policy that military tribunals are the proper venue for enemy combatants,” Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said in a statement through his spokesman.
“If the Abu Ghaith trial does go forward in federal court it must not be used as a precedent for future enemy combatants who should be tried at Guantanamo,” he added.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was slated to be the first high-profile member of the terrorist group to be tried in a civilian court before intense pressure forced the Obama Administration to change its plans.