WASHINGTON -- A senior al-Qaida leader and member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle was charged Thursday with conspiring to kill Americans in his role as the terror network's top propagandist who lauded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and warned there would be more.
Officials said Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was born in Kuwait and was bin Laden's son-in-law, was captured in Jordan over the last week. He will appear today in U.S. federal court in New York, according to a Justice Department statement and indictment outlining the accusations against Abu Ghaith.
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in U.S. federal courts instead of holding them at the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it immediately sparked an outcry from Republicans in Congress who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
"If this man, the spokesman of 9/11, isn't an enemy combatant, who is?" Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters. 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-Qaida, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher and urged followers that month to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
The day after the 9/11 attacks, prosecutors say he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the "nation of Islam" to battle Jews, Christians and Americans.
A "great army is gathering against you," Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Shortly afterward, Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that "the storms shall not stop -- especially the airplanes storm," and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaida allies to stay out of planes and highrise buildings. In one video, he was sitting with bin Laden in front of a rock face in Afghanistan. Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after 9/11. In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. 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 small 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 U.S. 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," Lynch said.
Abu Ghaith's trial will mark one of the first prosecutions of senior al-Qaida leaders on U.S. soil. Charging foreign terror suspects in American federal courts was a top pledge by U.S. President Barack Obama shortly after he took office in 2009 and was aimed, in part, at closing Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open. Several Republican lawmakers on Thursday said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo, where he could be questioned more thoroughly than his lawyers likely will allow as a federal defendant on U.S. soil.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a court in America but could potentially yield more information to prevent future threats.
Since 9/11, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in U.S. federal courts, according to watchdog group Human Rights First.
By comparison, of the thousands of detainees who were swept up shortly after the terror attacks and held at Guantanamo Bay, only seven were convicted by military tribunals held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, the watchdog group said. The vast majority have been sent back overseas, either for rehabilitation or continued detention and prosecution.
-- The Associated Press