(CNN) — Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law pleaded not guilty Friday morning to charges of trying to kill Americans.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who served as an al Qaeda spokesman, was captured and taken to the United States, federal officials announced Thursday.
“No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Thursday. “To violent extremists who threaten the American people and seek to undermine our way of life, this arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice because we will do everything in our power to hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
He was charged in a federal indictment with conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, the Department of Justice announced.
The decision to take Abu Ghaith to New York rather than to a detention facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba raised fresh questions about the treatment of those accused of making war or plotting against the United States.
The administration said President Barack Obama remains committed to closing the Guantanamo Bay facility, rather than adding to its population. The Justice Department said it examined the nature of Abu Ghaith’s alleged conduct and whether charges would best be served in federal court or through a military commission.
“Our policy is that we will prosecute whenever feasible in the national security interests of the United States,” department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement. “In this case, the president’s national security team examined this matter and unanimously agreed that prosecution of (Abu) Ghaith in federal court will best protect the national security interests of the United States.”
Several Republicans said Abu Ghaith should have been taken to Guantanamo for interrogation as an enemy combatant.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, in a news conference, argued against civilian criminal proceedings.
“I think we (are) setting a new precedent that will come back to bite us,” he told reporters. “It’s clear to me they snuck him in … under the nose of Congress.”
The South Carolina senator was joined at the news conference by Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who said, “If you are that close to bin Laden, we want to develop all the information that person has.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, reaffirmed his opposition to U.S. trials of suspected al Qaeda members detained at Guantanamo: “We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy — the U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue.”
But Eugene Fiddell, a prominent military legal expert, said the conspiracy charge is not a war crime and is outside the jurisdiction of a military commission.
The U.S. Treasury Department has described Abu Ghaith as “the official spokesman of al Qaeda since his appointment to that position after the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
He appeared in videos as “the mouthpiece of bin Laden,” the department said.
Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that Abu Ghaith was seized in Ankara “after a tipoff” from the CIA and was held for 33 days. A Turkish court decided to release him because he had not committed a crime in Turkey. He was considered “stateless” because Kuwait had stripped him of his citizenship after he appeared in videos supporting the 9/11 attacks, the report said.
Abu Ghaith entered Turkey illegally from Iran, so he could be deported to Iran or another country, the report said. After Iran did not accept him, Turkey decided to send him to Kuwait through Jordan. The CIA captured Abu Ghaith when he was passing from Jordan into Kuwait, the newspaper said.
The U.S. government did not immediately confirm that report.
Abu Ghaith was a high school teacher and preacher at a mosque in Kuwait, the U.S. Treasury says on its website. “He fought in Afghanistan, accused the U.S. government of killing children in Iraq through U.N. sanctions, and joined Muslim guerillas fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer of 1994.”
He was later banned from his mosque for using his sermons to attack the government.
Before September 11, 2001, “his mission was to recruit elements for training in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. 9/11 Commission said Abu Ghaith “reportedly” supported the idea of a major operation directly against the United States in 2001.
Bin Laden, leader of the terrorist al Qaeda network that staged the 9/11 attacks on the United States, was killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan in 2011.
According to the indictment unveiled Thursday, Abu Ghaith was engaged in planning and perpetrating a federal crime of terrorism against the United States and its citizens. He could face a life sentence if convicted.
In May 2001, Abu Ghaith urged people at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear allegiance to bin Laden, according to the charges. A day after 9/11, the alleged spokesman warned the United States and its allies that a “great army is gathering against you” and called on “the nation of Islam” to battle “Jews, the Christians and Americans,” the indictment states.
Abu Ghaith later warned that “the storms shall not stop, especially, the airplane storms” and that Muslims and foes of the United States should not to board aircraft or live in high-rise buildings, according to the indictment.
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