WASHINGTON – Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the charismatic Al Qaeda spokesman, fundraiser and son-in-law to Usama bin Laden, is likely to have a vast trove of knowledge about the terror network's central command but not much useful information about current threats or plots, intelligence officials and other experts say.
Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty Friday to conspiring to kill Americans in propaganda videos that warned of further assaults against the United States as devastating as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Believed to be more of a strategic player in bin Laden's inner circle than an operational plotter, Abu Ghaith would be the highest-ranking Al Qaeda figure to stand trial on U.S. soil since 9/11. Intelligence officials say he may be able to shed new light on Al Qaeda's inner workings — concerning Al Qaeda's murky dealings in Iran over the past decade, for example — but probably will have few details about specific or imminent ongoing threats.
He gave U.S. officials a 22-page statement after his Feb. 28 arrest in Jordan, according to prosecutors. They would not describe the statement.
Bearded and balding, Abu Ghaith said little during the 15-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in New York — in lower Manhattan just blocks from Ground Zero — and displayed none of the finger-wagging or strident orations that marked his propaganda in the days and months after 9/11.
Through an interpreter, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked whether he understood his rights. Abu Ghaith nodded and said, "Yes." Asked whether he had money to hire an attorney, he shook his head and said no. He nodded and said yes when asked whether he had signed an affidavit describing his financial situation.
Kaplan promised to set a trial date when the case returns to court on April 8. Bail was not requested, and none was set. Abu Ghaith's lawyer declined comment after the hearing.
The fact that the defendant is being tried in federal district court is controversial in itself. Republicans are criticizing the Obama administration for bringing Abu Ghaith to New York instead of sending him to the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Barack Obama has promised to close Guantanamo, where terror detainees generally have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a U.S. federal court. But critics say a suspect like Abu Ghaith should be held at Guantanamo and treated as an enemy combatant rather than a "common criminal" with full rights in an everyday court.
A month after 9/11, Abu Ghaith called on every Muslim to join the fight against the United States, declaring that "jihad is a duty."
"The Americans must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, God willing, and there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life," he said in the Oct. 9, 2001, speech.
Two days before that, he sat with bin Laden and current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri against a rocky backdrop and spoke for nearly five minutes in one of the terror group's most widely watched propaganda videos.
Kuwaiti by birth but stripped of his citizenship after 9/11, Abu Ghaith was an imam at a Kuwaiti mosque and taught high school religion classes until 2000, when he headed to Afghanistan. It's not clear when he met his wife, bin Laden's daughter Fatima, but a U.S. intelligence official on Friday said bin Laden probably introduced them. The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Fatima was bin Laden's eldest daughter. Estimates on the number of his children range up to 23. He had four wives, the maximum Islam allows.
Abu Ghaith's charisma and impassioned rhetoric, which helped Al Qaeda recruit followers and raise money, made him a natural choice as bin Laden's spokesman and key adviser, said Tom Lynch, a senior research fellow at National Defense University. He said Abu Ghaith would have all but certainly been included in discussions about the 9/11 attack before it was launched — even if he was not directly involved in the plot.
"He was on Usama bin Laden's right-hand side, and was used by him as a mouthpiece for the organization," said attorney Michael Rosensaft, who prosecuted terrorism cases in the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan until late 2012 and is now in private practice.
Even so, the U.S. intelligence official said Abu Ghaith probably has few details about ongoing terror threats or other current operational details to share with U.S. officials.
"We're not alleging that he was a planner, but a player within the group," the official said.
Abu Ghaith fled with bin Laden when the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001, living for nearly a year in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province before crossing into Pakistan, according to Taliban officials familiar with his movements. Abu Ghaith operated between Pakistan's North Waziristan region and Middle Eastern countries, they said.
Prosecutors said Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan in 2002. He lived there under house arrest until 2010.
At that time, Western officials say, Tehran brokered a deal with Al Qaeda to release Iranian diplomat Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, who was kidnapped in 2008 in Pakistan's border city of Peshawar, in exchange for Abu Ghaith and several members of bin Laden's family, including one of his sons. That agreement also allowed Al Qaeda access throughout Iran.
Lynch said it's believed that while living in Iran Abu Ghaith helped coordinate the flow of funding and foreign terror fighters in and out of Pakistan, Iraq and possibly Yemen.
"I know of nobody else we've captured who has spent as much time in the Iranian environment post-9/11, and we know there was a lot going on there helping facilitate this organization," said Lynch, a retired Army colonel who was a counterterror and South Asia adviser to former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid.
Lynch said it's believed Abu Ghaith returned to Pakistan after leaving Iran but was uncomfortable there and sought to enter Turkey through Iran within the past several months. Tipped off by the CIA, Turkish officials took Abu Ghaith into custody but released him in late February without being able to charge him with a crime there. The intelligence official said Abu Ghaith was being deported to Kuwait when he stopped in Jordan. There, he was captured by the FBI and flown to the U.S. on March 1.
Abu Ghaith's family, including his wife, was allowed to continue on to Saudi Arabia, the intelligence official said.
As for the defendant's being tried in New York, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said the White House's decision "will not go unchallenged."
"The Obama administration's lack of a war-time detention policy for foreign members of Al Qaeda, as well as its refusal to detain and interrogate these individuals at Guantanamo, makes our nation less safe," the senators said in a statement. "A foreign member of al Qaida should never be treated like a common criminal and should never hear the words 'you have a right to remain silent.'"
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said security agencies across the government — including the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense — agreed that Abu Ghaith would best be prosecuted in a federal court. Asked whether the top priority of detaining Abu Ghaith was to bring him to justice or gather intelligence, Josh Earnest said that federal courts could do both.
"We don't have to choose," Earnest said. "We're able to do both and that's exactly what we did."