A jury’s conviction of the al-Qaeda spokesman who warned US citizens that the “storm of airplanes” would not stop after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted US Attorney General Eric Holder to claim victory for the US civil court system, signaling terror suspects arrested in the future in the US or abroad will routinely face justice in civil courts rather than military tribunals.
“This verdict has proven that proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home, as in other locations across our great nation,” Holder said in a statement after a Manhattan jury on Wednesday convicted 48-year-old Sulaiman Abu Ghaith of conspiring to kill US citizens and aiding al-Qaeda.
“It was appropriate that this defendant, who publicly rejoiced over the attacks on the World Trade Center, faced trial in the shadow of where those buildings once stood,” Holder said.
Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti-born imam who married al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s eldest daughter about five years ago, is the highest-ranking al-Qaeda figure brought to trial on US soil since the attacks.
Prosecutors said he played a leading role in the terror organization’s propaganda videos after the attacks, in which he and others gloated over the destruction.
He could get life in prison at sentencing scheduled for Sept. 8.
Holder said US President Barack Obama’s administration never doubted the civil court system could administer swift justice.
“It would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest,” he said.
David Kelley, a lawyer in private practice who served as US attorney in Manhattan under former US president George W. Bush after successfully prosecuting 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef, said the administration’s approach was somewhat vindicated by a trial that showed “it can and should be, in appropriate circumstances, done in civil courts.”
Kelley said the trial should dispel the fears of big tribunal advocates, showing them they are “blowing a lot of hot air.”
The conviction after six hours of deliberations came barely a year after Abu Ghaith was captured in Jordan and brought to New York, a transfer that drew some criticism that he was going to a civilian court.
In November 2009, Holder announced that the attacks’ self-described mastermind — Khalid Sheik Mohammed — would be tried in Manhattan courts, a decision he reversed in April 2011 under rising political opposition, saying families of victims of the attacks deserved swift justice.
Now, Mohammed and four Guantanamo detainees are unlikely to be tried in military tribunals before next year.
US Attorney Preet Bharara said he hopes the verdict brings some comfort to the families of al-Qaeda victims.
“He was more than just Osama bin Laden’s propaganda minister,” Bharara said. “Within hours after the devastating 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghaith was using his position in al-Qaeda’s homicidal hierarchy to persuade others to pledge themselves to al-Qaeda in the cause of murdering more Americans.”
Abu Ghaith’s lawyers had argued he was being prosecuted for his words and associations — not his deeds — and that there was no evidence tying him to terror plots that prosecutors suggested he knew about ahead of time.