WASHINGTON — Weeks after he was first arrested in Turkey, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who once served as a spokesman for al-Qaida will appear in a New York courtroom on Friday to face terrorism charges that could result in life imprisonment.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is married to one of bin Laden's daughters, Fatima, is to be charged with conspiracy to kill Americans, according to an indictment released today.
Justice Department officials described him as a propagandist who they believe has not had an operational role in al-Qaida for years and did not participate in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or any plots against the U.S. But one law enforcement official said that Abu Ghaith, 47, was the most senior al-Qaida figure to face criminal trial in New York since America's war against the terrorist network began.
Details about Abu Ghaith's arrest were sketchy today, but officials said he was originally detained last month while staying in a hotel in Ankara, Turkey, after crossing the border from Iran, where he had been living for about a decade.
According to one person in Washington briefed on the matter, Turkish officials rebuffed demands by the Obama administration to directly hand him over to the United States, choosing instead to deport him to Kuwait. On a stopover in Amman, Jordan, U.S. officials took him into custody and flew him to New York.
Jordan's spy service, the General Intelligence Directorate, is one of the Central Intelligence Agency's closest partners in the Middle East.
Abu Ghaith was a Muslim preacher and teacher in Kuwait who spoke out against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. In 2000, he traveled to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden and eventually married one of his daughters.
He attracted wide attention in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks by making statements defending the terrorist attacks, some of them carried on Al-Jazeera. According to an indictment unsealed today, Abu Ghaith appeared with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who was then his deputy, and warned the U.S. and its allies that a "great army is gathering against you" and called upon "the nation of Islam" to do battle against "the Jews, the Christians and the Americans."
He also urged people at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear allegiance to bin Laden and on the night of the World Trade Center attacks, bin Laden summoned him and asked for his assistance and he agreed to provide it, according to the indictment.
The arrest of Abu Ghaith was the rare occasion in which an al-Qaida operative was detained overseas rather than killed. The Obama administration has expanded the use of targeted killing operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, asserting that they are justified when there is no possibility of capture.
Spokesmen for the CIA and White House declined to comment.
Abu Ghaith went to Iran in 2002, one of a handful of al-Qaida operatives who traveled there in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Intelligence officials have long debated how the group of operatives — known as al-Qaida's "shura council" — has been treated inside Iran, and his trial could shed light on their lives there.
Some officials described them as being under a kind of house arrest, and point out that Iran — a country run by a Shia Muslim theocracy — would be wary of any alliance with al-Qaida, a Sunni terror network. Others believe that Iran might at least be using the group to keep open communication channels with senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.
In recent months, U.S. spy agencies have picked up indications that the al-Qaida operatives inside Iran — including Saif al Adel, an Egyptian who is the terrorist group's senior operative in Iran — might be trying to leave the country and return to their various home countries.
George Venizelos, the assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office, compared Abu Ghaith's position in al-Qaida to the consigliere in a mob family, or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime. He said he used his role to persuade others to join "al-Qaida's murderous cause."
"He had serious religious credibility inside of al-Qaida," said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. Jones said it was unlikely that Abu Ghaith would have intelligence about any active al-Qaida plots, but said that he could be a useful source of information about the movement of the group's operatives through Iran.
In 2010, the Obama administration abandoned plans to bring five men charged with plotting the Sept. 11 attacks — including the accused mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a far more significant al-Qaida figure — to trial in the same courthouse in Lower Manhattan where Abu Ghaith will appear on Friday, blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
The turnaround came in the face of nearly unanimous pressure from New York officials and business leaders after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York had withdrawn his initial support for the plan, saying the security costs and disruption would be too great. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly had outlined a plan for securing thetrial that involved transforming a section of lower Manhattan into an armed camp, blanketed with police checkpoints, vehicle searches, rooftop snipers and canine patrols.
But should Abu Ghaith go to trial, law enforcement and municipal officials said, the proceedings would likely draw far less attention and create far fewer issues.
Several major terrorism defendants are already facing trial inManhattan, including several who were extradited from Britain in October.
They include Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery Islamic preacher who has been charged with conspiring in a 1998 kidnapping of U.S. and other tourists in Yemen and in trying to help establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon; and one man charged with conspiring in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa. Both have pleaded not guilty.
But the plan to put Abu Ghaith on trial in New York City drew immediate criticism.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that al-Qaida leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the U.S. to stand trial. "We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy — the U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue. The president needs to send any captured al-Qaida members to Guantanamo," he said.
Julie Menin, the former chairwoman of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan who opposed the earlier plan, said she was in favor of a Manhattan trial for Abu Ghaith.
''I think it is a very different situation," said Menin, who is running for Manhattan borough president and said her opposition to the earlier trial was based on the intense disruption that security precautions would have brought to the neighborhood.