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Why bin Laden's son-in-law is being tried in New York

The decision to try al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in a New York courtroom has reignited the debate about the disposition of terrorist suspects on American soil. On Thursday, Republican lawmakers -- ranging from Sen. Lindsey Graham to Sen. Kelly Ayotte to Rep. Mike Rogers -- criticized the president for setting a "very bad precedent" by affording a so-called "enemy combatant" the legal rights of a U.S. citizen.

But the Obama administration's decision becomes clearer after inspecting the unsealed indictment on Abu Ghaith, who has just pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors apparently cannot link Osama bin Laden's son-in-law to any war crimes or specific terrorist operations. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston explained the rationale on the radio this morning:

On the surface, Abu Ghaith would appear to be a perfect candidate for the military commissions tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. That is where the alleged 9-11 defendants - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men - are on trial ... But from the charges that were unsealed today it may be that the administration decided that the only alternative was federal courts and that's because they appear to be charging him with this conspiracy charge and this material support charge and those are the kinds of charges that aren't internationally recognized as war crimes but are very common in federal courts in the United States.

Reiterating that point, Bob Chesney, a law professor who specializes in national security at the University of Texas, writes in a blog post for Lawfare that "it is of course quite uncertain at the moment that the [military] commission system has the capacity to charge conspiracy in this instance." The indictment says Abu Ghaith urged others to swear loyalty to bin Laden, joined top al Qaeda leaders in condemning the United States, and warned of impending attacks. That makes Abu Ghaith a terrible person but not necessarily a war criminal, which is an important distinction for officials weighing the proper jurisdiction.

On a purely logistical level, trying Abu Ghaith in New York will also be much easier than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's anticipated trial, New York city officials tell the New York Times. For the KSM case, police commissioner Raymond Kelly planned to transform a part of Lower Manhattan into an "armed camp, blanketed with checkpoints, vehicle searches, rooftop snipers and canine patrols," reports the newspaper. "But should Mr. Abu Ghaith go to trial, officials said, the proceedings would most likely draw far less attention and create far fewer problems."

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The videos that made bin Laden's son-in-law famous

It's been a long hunt, but today U.S. officials confirmed the capture of al Qaeda spokesman and Osama bin Laden son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Beating the FBI and CIA to the announcement, New York Congressman Peter King leaked the news to the press and made a point of referencing Ghaith's infamous post-9/11 propaganda videos.

"The propaganda statements in which Abu Ghaith and his late father-in-law, Osama bin Laden, praised the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are alone enough to merit the most serious punishment," King said.

The congressman's jurisprudence aside, it could certainly be said that Abu Ghaith was at the forefront as al Qaeda agents threw salt in the wounds of a reeling, post-9/11 America. In videos in which he appeared alongside Osama bin Laden, Abu Ghaith praised the attacks, dwelled on the demands of the terrorist network, and promised far more serious attacks in the future.  

His most infamous broadcasts were released in 2001 on Oct. 7 (shown above) and 10. "The Americans should know that the storm of plane attacks will not abate," Abu Ghaith said on Oct. 10. "There are thousands of the Islamic nation's youths who are eager to die just as the Americans are eager to live."

"Let the United States know that the battle will continue to be waged on its territory until it leaves our land, stops its support for the Jews, and lifts the unjust embargo on the Iraqi people," he continued. "U.S. interests are spread throughout the world. So, every Muslim should carry out his real role to champion his Islamic nation and religion."

After the release of the videos, the government of Kuwait stripped Abu Ghaith of his citizenship. He then moved to Iran in 2002 and was placed in a loose form of house arrest in 2003, according to reports. He is believed to have then illegally entered Turkey, where he was apprehended several weeks ago, deported to Jordan, and then placed in U.S. custody.

Though much of his rhetoric included empty threats, they were taken seriously by the Bush administration, including a claim that al Qaeda had a "right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands."

As Long War Journal noted, former CIA director George Tenet wrote in his book that it "would have been easy to dismiss his ranting as the hyperbole of a deranged man," but the government "had to consider the possibility that Abu Ghaith was attempting to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction that might greatly exceed the death toll of 9/11." From now on, those empty threats will have to come from a prison cell, it seems.