Osama bin Laden's son-in-law pleaded not guilty Friday toplotting against Americans in his role as al-Qaida's top spokesman as alandmark case trying a terror suspect on U.S. soil moves forward.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea through a lawyer to one count ofconspiracy to kill Americans after being captured in Jordan over the past week.
The case marks a legal victory for the Obama administration, which has longsought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in U.S. federal courts instead ofholding them at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Chargingforeign terror suspects in federal courts was a top pledge by President BarackObama shortly after he took office in 2009 -aimed, in part, to closeGuantanamo Bay.
Republicans, however, have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open, and bringing Abu Ghaith to New York led to an outcry. Republicans in Congressdo not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States, fearingthat outcomes in a civilian jury trial are too unpredictable, compared to amilitary trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the capture of Abu Ghaith onThursday, saying "no amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve tobring America's enemies to justice."
Holder reluctantly agreed in 2011 to try self-professed al-Qaida mastermindKhalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Guantanamo Bay military court instead of a civiliancourt after a fierce Republican backlash.
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaida, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at leastMay 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher and urgedfollowers to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors say he appeared with binLaden and al-Zawahri and called on the "nation of Islam" to battle againstJews, Christians and Americans.
A "great army is gathering against you," Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after the 2001 attacks. In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. military and CIA searched for bin Laden, prosecutorssaid Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan.
Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University inWashington, described Abu Ghaith as one of a small handful of senior al-Qaidaleaders "capable of getting the old band back together and postured for a roundof real serious international terror."
"His capture and extradition not only allows the U.S. to hold … and perhapstry … 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 corerefugees," Lynch said.
Several Republican lawmakers said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemycombatant and sent to Guantanamo, where he could be questioned more thoroughlythan his lawyers likely would allow as a federal defendant on U.S.soil.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process thanthey would have in a court in America but could potentially yield moreinformation to prevent future threats.
Since 2001, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in U.S. federalcourts, according to watchdog group Human Rights First, which obtained the datafrom the Justice Department through a Freedom of Information Act request.
By comparison, of the thousands of detainees who were swept up shortly afterthe terror attacks and held at Guantanamo Bay, only seven were convicted bymilitary 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 orcontinued detention and prosecution.
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