WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors unsealed an indictment against a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden on Thursday that charged him with conspiracy to kill Americans, after government sources said he was arrested overseas and brought to New York.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a militant who appeared in videos representing al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks in 2001, had initially been picked up in Turkey and was brought to the United States in an operation led by Jordanian authorities and the FBI, the sources said.
The Turkish government deported him to Jordan, the sources said, where local authorities and the FBI took custody of him. He was brought to the United States in the last few days, a law enforcement source said.
U.S. officials including Attorney General Eric Holder announced the indictment on Thursday, saying he would be arraigned on Friday at U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan, only blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks.
Abu Ghaith becomes one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to be brought to the United States for civilian trial. When Holder previously announced plans to try defendants in the September 11 attacks in the same courthouse, he was forced to back down by public opposition, and the trials were moved to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
New York police were less concerned Abu Ghaith’s case would present a security problem than they were about the trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others charged with plotting the attacks, a law enforcement source said.
“It’s not the same. It doesn’t rise to that level,” said the source, who is familiar with the department’s views and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The indictment accused Abu Ghaith of acting in a conspiracy that “would and did murder United States nationals anywhere in the world,” listing actions before and after September 11, 2001.
“Among other things, Abu Ghaith urged others to swear allegiance to bin Laden, spoke on behalf of and in support of al Qaeda’s mission, and warned that attacks similar to those of September 11, 2001 would continue,” the indictment said.
It cited a May 2001 gathering at a house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, alleging Abu Ghaith urged guests to swear allegiance to bin Laden, and it says bin Laden summoned Abu Ghaith on the evening of September 11, requesting his assistance.
Bin Laden and Abu Ghaith appeared together the next morning, when the defendant warned the United States and its allies that a “great army is gathering against you” and that “the nation of Islam” would do battle against “the Jews, the Christians and the Americans,” the indictment alleges.
Initial public confirmation of Abu Ghaith’s capture came from Representative Peter King, a senior Republican member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee and former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“I commend our CIA and FBI, our allies in Jordan, and President (Barack) Obama for their capture of al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice,” King said in a statement.
U.S. sources indicated that, while a CIA role in the capture of Abu Ghaith could not be ruled out, the FBI took the lead role in the operation under the auspices of an interagency body known as the High-value Detainee Interrogation Group.
The group was created by Obama’s administration after the president ordered the shutdown of a CIA program in which militant suspects were detained and held in a network of secret prisons during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The suspects were sometimes subjected to controversial and physically coercive “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and also were sometimes transferred without trial to third countries under a procedure known as “extraordinary rendition.”
Records compiled by a United Nations sanctions committee show Abu Ghaith was born in Kuwait in 1965.
After the September 11 attacks, Abu Ghaith first surfaced as one of al Qaeda’s main spokesmen. Later, U.S. officials believe he was part of a group of top al Qaeda figures that included one of bin Laden’s sons, Saad, who allegedly traveled to Iran, where the Iranian government said they were being held “in custody.”
The Long War Journal, a counterterrorism blog published by the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, reported in 2010 that Abu Ghaith had been released by Iranian authorities and supposedly had returned to Afghanistan.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman