The Obama administration has killed hundreds of alleged al-Qaida members with drone strikes, but in four years has captured only two abroad. On Friday the second of those, former al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, appeared in a New York federal courtroom, charged with one count of conspiracy. His transport to a civilian criminal court in the United States predictably prompted howls of protest from congressional Republicans; it also underlined the mess Congress and the White House have jointly made out of the system of arresting and holding suspected terrorists. Nevertheless, based on what we know so far, the administration appears to have made the right decisions in Abu Ghaith’s case.
The Kuwaiti-born cleric’s main claim to fame are chilling speeches he made in the aftermath of Sept, 11. 2001, promising that “the storm of planes will not stop.” He appeared in videos with Osama bin Laden, who was his father-in-law, and urged would-be militants to swear allegiance to the al-Qaida chief. In 2002, he was part of a group of al-Qaida operatives who traveled to Iran and spent a decade there under cloudy circumstances. Early this year he was apparently detected in Turkey by the CIA and arrested; Turkey declined to extradite him to the United States, but agreed to deport him to Kuwait via Jordan, which unlike Turkey is not a member of NATO but apparently was more willing to help bring justice to a sworn U.S. enemy.
Republicans are questioning why Abu Ghaith was brought to New York rather than the Guantanamo Bay prison, where he could have been interrogated indefinitely about matters such as al-Qaida’s activity in Iran. The answer is two-fold: Obama is politically committed to closing Guantanamo, a stance we think is short-sighted; but Congress also has made it a practical impossibility to transfer suspects there by prohibiting transfers from Guantanamo to the United States — or, for that matter, virtually anywhere else. It’s not clear that Abu Ghaith could have been tried by a Guantanamo military tribunal under the conspiracy charge he faces in federal court, so he could have been left in indefinite legal limbo. The alternative, a likely conviction by a federal court and a life sentence, would have greater legal and political legitimacy both here and internationally.
In court on Friday, a prosecutor described an “extensive post-arrest statement” of 22 pages given by Abu Ghaith. What remained unclear was if authorities had fully exploited his intelligence value before bringing him into the criminal justice system. The al-Qaida suspect previously captured by the administration, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, was held on a warship for a period and interrogated before his transfer to the United States. Experts said it was unlikely that Abu Ghaith possessed information about active al-Qaida plots. If so, that would be one more reason for trying him in New York.