As the “communications director” of al-Qaeda, recently captured terrorist, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was an active part of the upper echelons of the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. Shortly after 9/11, he appeared alongside Osama Bin Laden in widely circulated propaganda videos, in which he called for the downfall of western countries, and commanded Islamists the world over to rise up and fight. He is also a prime suspect in the Faylaka Island Attack of October, 2002.
Many want to know, why is he being tried in the much more protective US civilian court system, versus a military tribunal? Echoing the sentiments of many Republicans, part of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s released statement reads, “Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans and he likely possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies… He is an enemy combatant and should be held in military custody.” The intelligence community is particularly upset, as they believe that Ghaith may have valuable information.
Currently housed in New York, Ghaith has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The location of the trial, just blocks from the World Trade Center, is of course symbolic. If convicted, Ghaith will likely face life in prison. In a military tribunal, he might face similar circumstances, but the military would have more access to him as an intelligence resource. At Guantanamo Bay, Ghaith could be interrogated for whatever extent deemed necessary, without the protection of a civilian lawyer. It is one of the factors that has made the prison controversial.
Ghaith has been in prison in Iran for the last several years, only showing up in Turkey within the last few months. It is seculated that he does not have much information regarding al-Qaeda or other terrorist activities, but he may have special knowledge of Iran. Of particular interest are the circumstances of his confinement, which appears to have been genuine.
The decision to try Ghaith in a civilian court may be more political than practical. President Obama, while campaigning in 2008, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. It is a promise that he has yet to make good on. Limiting the number of high profile trials there reduces the attention called to the issue. Though, New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, along with others, favor the civilian court system as a means of trying suspected terrorists. Nadler said “We are a nation committed to the rule of law, and we will demonstrate our values to the world even in the face of the most despicable mass murder in our history.”
New York is already trying other high profile suspected terrorists. This includes Abu Hamza al-Masri (pictured), who was extradited to the US in October. Hamza is believed to be connected to numerous high profile terrorist events, but the biggest charges being leveled against him involve attempting to set up terrorist training camps in the US, and abducting tourists in Yemen. If he is successfully tried, along with Ghaith’s case, it will help establish a growing precedent for prosecuting suspected terrorists in American civilian courts.