The Swift Justice of the al Qaeda Messenger Trial

With jury deliberations now underway, Suleiman Abu Ghaith's case is proving to be a textbook example of why civilian courtrooms work better than military commissions.
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Suleiman Abu Ghaith sits beside Osama bin Laden in a still frame from his first videotaped speech for al Qaeda on September 12, 2001. (United States Attorney, SDNY)

With jury deliberations now underway, the trial of alleged al Qaeda “mouthpiece” and “insider” Suleiman Abu Ghaith is proving to be a textbook example of why civilian trials work better than military commissions.  For the past three weeks, as Abu Ghaith has stood trial in Manhattan federal court, the judge and attorneys have relied on time-tested criminal laws and rules of evidence.

His case hasn’t been mired by any of the changing rules, pretrial squabbles, and post-verdict reversals that have stalled justice at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  All told, the Abu Ghaith case could end up being only 13 months from capture to potential conviction.  Meanwhile, proceedings against admitted 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants could take 13 years from KSM’s 2003 capture, as they await a military commission that will not commence before 2015.

Abu Ghaith, a 48-year-old Kuwaiti imam, is not being tried as a war criminal but a common criminal, albeit one charged with participating in al Qaeda’s global conspiracy to kill Americans.  Starting the day after 9/11, Abu Ghaith emerged as an al Qaeda spokesman appearing in half a dozen videos justifying the massive killings and threatening future attacks.  

“During the most important time in al Qaeda’s savage history, Suleiman Abu Ghaith was bin Laden’s principal messenger,” Assistant United States Attorney John Cronan told the jury in closing arguments Tuesday. Cronan called these widely disseminated tapes a recruiting tool. He argued that Abu Ghaith, seated on camera at bin Laden’s side, had used his authority as an imam to convince young Muslim men across the globe that they were “religiously required” to join the jihad against America. “This man's purpose was to strengthen Al Qaeda and solidify its future,” Cronan said.

Abu Ghaith later went on to marry bin Laden’s eldest daughter, Fatima, when the pair were under house arrest with other al Qaeda intimates inside Iran. 

In January 2013, Abu Ghaith snuck across the Iranian border into Turkey and was arrested 10 hours later. The following month, he was transported to Jordan, where FBI agents picked him up.  

There was no need for torture as veteran investigators questioned Abu Ghaith about his activities with bin Laden, both before and after 9/11. Although the agents informed him of his Miranda rights to remain silent and secure an attorney, Abu Ghaith spoke willingly to FBI agent Michael Butsch for the majority of the 14-hour ride aboard a Gulfstream V jet to New York.   

The prisoner was handcuffed and hooded when he was brought on board and shackled when he was seated, but Abu Ghaith took naps and bathroom breaks whenever he wanted during the flight. Butsch and the other arresting agents say they never threatened him. Butsch addressed Abu Ghaith courteously as “Sheik Suleiman.”

“I treated him like a gentleman. He did the same to me,” Butsch testified at the trial.

 “He said, I will be honest with you.  It was a respectful, relaxed conversation.”

Butsch’s summary of that interview ran 21 single-spaced pages. As a sign of its quality, there were no significant contradictions between Agent Butsch’s report and Abu Ghaith’s testimony at the trial.

* * *

When Abu Ghaith ’s trial began the morning of March 5, it was business as usual in Lower Manhattan.  There were no demonstrations, no street closures . The defendant was brought to trial from the adjoining federal jail.  The courthouses of the Southern District of New York had been fortified in late 2000 in preparation for the first major al Qaeda trial for the 1998 twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Bollards still encircle the buildings.U.S. Marshalls and NYPD have the scene under control. Court watchers are required to undergo airport-style security at the front door and then pass through metal detectors before entering the courtroom. 

During the trial, the government called two convicted terrorists who had agreed to testify in exchange for reduced sentences.  First came Saajid Badat, a 34-year-old British citizen who trained in Afghanistan with Richard Reid to hide explosives in their shoes and blow up a pair of U.S.-bound planes right before Christmas 2001. Reid tried and failed to execute the plan. Badat backed out.

Badat was sentenced to 12 years in British prison, but his sentence was cut in half after he became a government witness. Testifying via a live video feed from London, Badat explained what bin Laden hoped to achieve through another devastating airline attack.  

“He then said that the American economy is like a chain, and he drew out a chain. He said if you break one link, you will bring down the American economy,” Badat told the court. Although Badat never met Abu Ghaith , he said only people who were known and trusted could enter a guesthouse at the al Qaeda camps.

On that point, his testimony intersected with that of Sahim Alwan, the second terror convict to testify at Abu Ghaith ’s trial. Alwan was one of the “Lackawanna Six”—a group of young Yemeni-American men from the depressed steel town outside Buffalo who attended al Qaeda camp for a few weeks in the summer of 2001.  

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Phil Hirschkorn is a TV news producer and reporter in New York. 

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