NEW YORK – A U.S. citizen whose terrorism trial started Tuesday, a day after the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, is both a dangerous al-Qaida operative and someone who has a right to a fair trial in his native country, a federal prosecutor said during opening statements.
Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was born in Houston, raised in Dubai and went to college in Canada before ending up in Pakistan, is "an American citizen who turned his back on this country, joined terrorists and lived with them for seven years before he was caught," Assistant U.S. Attorney Saritha Komatireddy said in federal court in Brooklyn.
She also called the defendant "an American who sought to kill other Americans" while working for an arm of the terror network that planned attacks on the West.
In his opening, defense attorney David Ruhnke urged jurors to set aside their feelings about the Sept. 11 anniversary, calling his client a "real human being" who deserves a fair and impartial jury.
Farekh's case has drawn extra attention because of reports that American officials had debated whether to try to kill him in a drone strike, a step almost never taken against U.S. citizens. President Barack Obama's administration ultimately decided to try for a capture and civilian prosecution instead.
Farekh, 31, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other crimes.
Most of the charges against Farekh stem from an attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost City, Afghanistan, on Jan. 19, 2009, involving two vehicles rigged with explosives and driven by suicide bombers. An initial blast injured several Afghans, including a pregnant woman, but a much larger bomb failed to go off, sparing the lives of American soldiers.
The jury will hear testimony about how forensic technicians in Afghanistan recovered 18 of Farekh's fingerprints on adhesive packing tape used to bind the detonators on the unexploded bomb, court paper said. Al-Qaida members who have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government also are expected to take the witness stand.
Farekh's attorney argued the testimony of the turncoat terrorist shouldn't be trusted. He also called the fingerprint evidence "subjective."
Before Farekh's capture in Pakistan in 2014, the Pentagon nominated him for a kill list for terrorism suspects, with CIA officials also lobbying the White House to authorize his killing, according to a report in The New York Times. But the Department of Justice pushed back, questioning whether he was a big enough player in the terror network to take the extraordinary step of killing an American overseas without a trial.
Farekh was brought to New York City "so that this U.S. citizen could sit in a U.S. court and be held accountable for his crimes," Komatireddy said.
President Donald Trump's administration has taken steps to give the CIA and the military more latitude to target and kill al-Qaida and Islamic State group militants without a presidential signoff in places including Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military base in Cuba, is the best place to try terror suspects, saying civilian courts give legal protections to which they are not entitled.
During the presidential campaign, Trump, a Republican, said he wanted to keep Guantanamo Bay open after Obama, a Democrat, had long fought to close it. Trump promised to "load it up with some bad dudes."