Osama Bin-Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith went on trial this morning, in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan, not far from where the 9/11 attacks occurred in a case fraught with controversy. Ghaith is pleading “not guilty” to charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and providing material support for terrorists. Ghaith had been infamously quoted in Al Jazeera, and in videos he appeared in with Osama Bin Laden, threatening the U.S. with future terrorist actions. Jurors have been told by U.S. attorney Nicholas Lewin to expect to hear a tape of Ghaith’s confession to FBI agents, allegedly made as he was spirited to the U.S. from Jordan last year. Ghaith faces life in prison, if convicted. Prosecutors also plan to show post-9/11 videos featuring Bin-Laden and Ghaith promising more violent attacks against the U.S.
The first controversy: extraordinary rendition
It’s been almost exactly a full year since the U.S. authorities announced the capture of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, chief propagandist to Al Queda, and responsible for recruiting new fighters for the terror group. US agents had originally found Ghaith in Turkey, after he left house arrest in Iran. The Turkish authorities, however, would not extradite him to the U.S. for fear the U.S. government would impose the death penalty. By agreement, Ghaith was flown to Jordan, whence he was brought to the U.S., as part of the controversial extraordinary rendition program. This practice – an extrajudicial apprehension of wanted terror suspects and transfer to other countries – originally instituted and heavily utilized during the Bush Administration, was discontinued due to a global outcry. Critics of the program pointed to the possible use of torture on individuals who have been seized, calling the information thus obtained suspect or legally invalid. Advocates of the program asserted that the information derived from these detentions is crucial to support anti-terrorist efforts. Shortly after his 2009 inauguration, Barack Obama signed an Executive Order opposing rendition torture and implementing a task force to find ways to prevent its use. While the Obama administration has sought to discontinue some of the harshest counter-terrorism techniques, some forms of renditions will continue. At this time, the administration will allow rendition only to countries with legal jurisdiction to prosecute the individual, and only when there is a diplomatic assurance of humane treatment.
The second controversy: the use of drones
Ghaith should perhaps consider himself lucky. In other countries with active al Qaida figures, such as Yemen, where the U.S. is not able to perform capture operations, the al Qaida operatives are simply killed. In Pakistan, which will not permit the U.S. to send its own agents, the U.S. must resort to the use of drones to respond to terrorism. The Obama administration has seen an exponential increase in the use of drones to target militants abroad. But the drones program is in the crossfire between the “get-tough-on-terrorists” school of thought and the more “dove-ish” who are horrified by examples of accidental civilian deaths. Making matters worse, a lethal drone strike on the al Qaida cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in the U.S., created a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, as Americans reacted against the possible targeting of American citizens.
The third controversy: the trial venue
The choice to try abu Ghaith in New York City is also controversial. Congressional figures, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, argued for Ghaith to be tried in a military court, as an enemy combatant. The distinction between a military and a civilian trial is not entirely an academic one. As Sen. McConnell pointed out, if Ghaith were detained at Guantanamo, he could be interrogated without certain legal protections, such as objections from his defense lawyers. Advocates of civilian trials cite statistics documenting nearly 500 terror-related cases tried in federal courts since 9/11. In contrast, military commissions resulted in only eight individuals being convicted; six pleaded guilty, and the remaining two had their convictions overturned.
The fourth controversy: The closing of Guantanamo detention center
Perhaps the biggest regret of President Obama’s tenure in office is that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay has remained open, despite an executive order signed in January 2009, calling for the center to be closed within a year. In December 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates were tasked with acquiring an Illlinois state prison to replace the Guantanamo facility. In a stunning example of spineless “not-in-my-backyard” politics, Congress blocked all funding for this effort, and for any future acquisitions of prisons to replace the Guantanamo facility in May of 2010. The effort to close the detention center lost political steam, in indirect proportion to the volume of action groups calling for its closure and holding Mr. Obama accountable for the failure to do so.
In March of 2011, Obama signed an Executive Order creating a review process for detainees, and reinstating military tribunals for prisoners, a process originally halted during the president’s first week in office. Recently, a Marine major-general who assisted with the establishment of the prison was quoted in the “Detroit Free Press,” speaking of his conviction that Guantanamo should never have opened, and calling on the federal government to close it down.
The events surrounding the 9/11 catastrophe are still capable of arousing powerful emotions over 12 years later. The trial of Osama-Bin-Laden’s son-in-law in a civilian court – especially in a civilian court in the city of New York – is bound to reignite controversy and inflame old wounds. The danger is that passions thus aroused may cause the American people to lose sight of some of the fundamental freedoms this country was founded on.
By Laura Prendergast