As the most high-profile al-Qaeda trial in New York City since 9/11 began with high tension, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith made his first appearance in a Manhattan courtroom Friday to face charges of conspiracy to kill Americans. Abu Ghaith, who is married to a daughter of Osama bin Laden and was consider to be a cheap spokesperson for al Qaeda, pled not guilty during a brief hearing that was surrounded by heavy security.
Justice Department officials say Abu Ghaith, who was found in Turkey after spending time in Iranian prison, is not accused of directly taking part in any terrorist attacks. But he is considered one of the terrorist group's chief propagandists and religious teachers, and he will be prosecuted as someone who gave "material support" to bid Laden's organization.
The trial will be held in New York City against the wishes of some government officials, like Republican Congressman Lindsey Graham and Mike Rogers, who wanted Abu Ghaith treated as an enemy combatant and thrown in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Ghaith would be the most senior al Qaeda figure to be put on trial in the United States since Ramzi Yousef was convicted after the first World Trade Center bombing; previous attempts to hold prosecutions in New York for the conspirators of the September 11 were thwarted. One of the major objections is that the courthouse where Friday's hearing and any future trial would be held is at the tip of lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center memorial—and the financial district where tens of thousands of workers do business everyday.
Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not seem pleased with the idea of a New York City venue, his objections about security for Abu Ghaith's trial are far less greater than they were for that of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The legal arguments for keeping Abu Graith off U.S. soil aren't as strong either, since the "material support" charge makes it harder to pin the "enemy combatant" label on him. The decision may also be part of strategy to wring more cooperation out of Abu Ghaith, keeping out of Guantanamo in exchange for information about other terrorists.
In any case, it seems all the objections to a civilian court trial are moot, since the Obama administration has made its decision and the legal proceedings are in motion. Abu Ghaith's next court appearance is set for April 8. He face life imprisonment if convicted.