NEW YORK — A senior al-Qaida leader and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, captured in Jordan in the past week, pleaded not guilty today in federal court in New York to plotting against Americans in his role as the terror network’s top spokesman.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was brought into the largest courtroom at the federal courthouse shortly after 10 a.m. and entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in a case that marks a legal victory for President Barack Obama’s administration.
Black cuffs bound his hands behind him as he was led into a courtroom with about 80 spectators, mostly journalists, lawyers and court employees. He was bearded and wearing a blue prison uniform. The cuffs were taken off, and he was seated next to his court-appointed lawyer, federal defender Philip Weinstein.
Abu Ghaith was arrested overseas the night of Feb. 28, gave an “extensive post-arrest statement” that totaled 22 pages, and arrived here March 1, Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan said. The prosecutor gave no details on the statement.
Through an interpreter, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked whether Abu Ghaith understood his rights. Abu Ghaith nodded yes. Asked whether he had money to hire an attorney, Abu Ghaith shook his head no. He nodded when asked whether he had signed an affidavit describing his financial situation.
Bail was not requested, and none was set. The judge said he would set a trial date April 8. Prosecutors said a trial would last about three weeks.
The Obama administration has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in American federal courts instead of military tribunals at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it runs counter to demands by Republicans in Congress who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
Abu Ghaith was born in Kuwait and was bin Laden’s son-in-law. The Department of Justice said he was the spokesman for al-Qaida, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher.
The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors say, he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the “nation of Islam” to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A “great army is gathering against you,” Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Shortly afterward, Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that “the storms shall not stop — especially the airplanes storm” and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaida allies to stay out of planes and high-rise buildings. In one video, he was sitting with bin Laden in front of a rock face in Afghanistan. Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after Sept. 11.
In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. military and CIA searched for bin Laden, Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan, prosecutors said.
Abu Ghaith’s trial will mark one of the first prosecutions of senior al-Qaida leaders on U.S. soil. Charging foreign terror suspects in American federal courts was a top pledge by Obama shortly after he took office in 2009, aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open. Several GOP lawmakers on Thursday said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a court in America but could potentially yield more information to prevent future threats.