Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was brought into Manhattan federal court on Friday where all accused Al Qaeda members should face justice.
The Twin Towers once stood just nine blocks away and the proximity to where this defendant’s alleged comrades murdered so many innocents served as both a visceral reminder of the enormity of the crime and a backdrop for the American justice system to prove itself restored from the dark days of waterboarding.
He was Osama bin Laden’s very own son-in-law. He had been captured on video cheering the horror of the 9/11 attacks and had called for the murder of millions more, including children.
And yet he was being treated exactly like any other accused criminal, beginning with the two escorting marshals removing his handcuffs after he was brought up to the defense table. The cuffs apparently were not tight; he evidenced no need to rub his wrists as he took a seat between two defense lawyers.
Reporters craned to see him, noting that he wore a loose fitting, dark blue prison uniform that looked like surgical scrubs. A court-provided Arabic interpreter came over to the defense table with a set of wireless earphones so the defendant would be able to follow the proceedings. A voice called out.
The figure in the defendant’s chair rose with the rest of those in attendance as Judge Lewis Kaplan entered the ninth-floor courtroom. His compliance seemed a small but telling victory for the system, if you believed that he was the al Qaeda equivalent of a consigliore in the Mafia, as the FBI has suggested. He, in truth, appeared a touch meek and overwhelmed, maybe even a little dim, as if he was closer to being al Qaeda’s own Fredo.
A more fanatical foe, such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, might have refused to stand had he been put on trial in the courthouse, as the Obama administration originally proposed three years ago before backing down in the face of security worries and frets about the impact on local business. There were in any event more than enough marshals on hand in the courtroom to have ensured anyone’s compliance with only necessary force.
“Please be seated,” the judge said.
The judge asked for the dates and times of the defendant's arrest and arrival in this jurisdiction. A prosecutor rose from a table where he sat with representatives of the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the NYPD. He reported that the defendant had been arrested by “U.S. law-enforcement personnel” on February 28 “at what translates to a little before midnight”—suggesting that it had been several time zones away, but refraining from saying that after spending 10 years in Iran, the defendant had been picked up by Turkish authorities in an Ankara hotel, then put on a plane to his native Kuwait that just so happened to have a layover in Jordan, where he was nabbed with the help of that country’s intelligence service. He arrived in New York at 12:30 p.m. on March 3.
“How do you prefer to be addressed?” the judge now inquired of the defendant.
“Sulaiman,” the defendant said.
“Mr. Sulaiman—” the judge said and began to recount the particulars of the indictment for conspiracy to murder American nationals by virtue of his association with al Qaeda and allegedly urging others to swear allegiance to bin Laden. The judge paused when he realized that Sulaiman had risen unbidden.
“You don’t have to stand,” the judge said. “Please be seated.”
Sulaiman complied and the judge continued, quoting videotaped statements the defendant had made in the company of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the day after the 9/11 attacks.
“A great army is gathering against you,” Sulaiman is alleged to have said, calling on “the nation of Islam” to commit wholesale slaughter against “the Jews, the Christians, and the Americans.”
The indictment charges that Sulaiman had subsequently declared that “the storms shall not stop, especially the airplane storms,” and warned his fellow Muslims and foes of America “not to board any aircraft and not to live in any high rises.”
Sulaiman had been 35 when he was videotaped uttering these words and had looked almost fierce. He is now 47 and his beard is streaked with gray. In person, he is slight of build and unimpressive in the way most action-movie stars are off-screen. The reality is that he and his pals never had a great army and they were not speaking for the nation of anything. They were just a murderous gang, likely with fewer active members than some of Chicago’s gangs. Calling them enemy combatants only built them up; there should have been less talk about going to war and more effort on making the collar.
Sulaiman had apparently been so convinced that U.S. officials would come looking for him and his buddies that he moved his family from Afghanistan to Pakistan before 9/11. He must have been both relieved and amused when the Bush administration diverted attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. Sulaiman got his start as an Islamist preacher by railing against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
After 12 years, he listened as the interpreter conveyed a standard warning from the judge that he had the right to remain silent.
“Do you understand these rights?” the judge asked.
“Na’am,” he said through the interpreter. “Yes.”
The judge inquired whether he was represented by an attorney. Sulaiman gestured with his freed hands to the lawyers seated on either side of him.
“Yes, there are two,” he said through the interpreter.
“Do you have sufficient money to hire these attorneys?” the judge asked.
“Do you wish me to appoint them for you no cost to you?”
Anyone who lost somebody dear on 9/11, and there are many thousands, might well bristle at the thought of the taxpayers providing such a man with attorneys. But you could also say it did honor to the great American seal affixed to the wall behind the judge and the American flag that stood to his right, proving that even a guy who is said to have cheered the murder of thousands just nine blocks away has rights in a nation of laws.
The defense lawyers duly appointed, the judge asked how their client pleaded to the indictment.
“Not guilty,” said attorney Philip Weinstein, who gave every sign of giving the case his all, despite belonging to two of the groups of enemies Sulaiman had named.
The arraignment concluded as usual, with the exception of the judge inquiring about classified material. The prosecution said there might possibly be some, but it was not certain, apparently because Sulaiman was generally out of the loop when it came to al Qaeda plots. The unclassified material the defense would be able to examine in the near future included a 22-page summary of statements that Sulaiman had made after his arrest as well as audio and video recordings of statements he had made to foreign officials.
“All rise,” a voice called out at the conclusion of the proceedings.
Sulaiman rose with the others as the judge departed. A marshal stepped up and Sulaiman placed his hands behind his back. There was a clicking sound as the cuffs went back on, but not tight enough to make him wince. He was escorted out, to returned on April 8 for a hearing.
Outside, snow was swirling but through it you could make out new spire that has risen in the place of the Twin Towers.