To have called Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai an enemy combatant and consigned him to Guantanamo Bay would have only glorified him—while demeaning us.
Instead, he was brought into a 24th-floor courtroom in Manhattan Federal Court on Tuesday and arraigned just like any other accused killer.
He is tall, with a prominent nose, and generally bears enough resemblance to Osama bin Laden that it makes immediate sense he reportedly served as a decoy during the al Qaeda leader’s pre-9/11 travels.
Al-Ruqai, whose nom de jihad is Anas al-Liby, could also have just been dispatched with a bullet in the way of Zero Dark Thirty. But the U.S. Delta Force soldiers who swooped down on him outside his house in Tripoli, Libya on October 5 instead whisked him off to a Navy warship. He arrived in New York over the weekend and now here he was, shuffling up to the defense table in beige socks and black flip-flops.
He was wearing a black sweatshirt and light grey sweatpants with an elastic waist. One feature that distinguished him from bin Laden was his beard, which had an auburn tint in the lower extreme where grey had not yet encroached.
As would be any accused killer, he was rear cuffed, so he had not been able to bring the Koran that he is permitted to have in lock-up. One of the two public defenders detailed for the arraignment had offered to carry the green covered book and arrived in the courtroom shortly before him. The holy words with which al Qaeda has sought to justify the most unholy deeds were waiting on the table as he was uncuffed and directed to sit. He was presented with a set of earphones through which an Arabic interpreter would translate.
“All rise!” a court clerk called out.
The former decoy did as bid as Federal Judge Lewis Kaplan entered. You almost had to wish that bin Laden himself had survived just so he could face such a moment. He surely would have been helped to his feet if he had refused to obey the command.
“United Sates versus Anas al-Liby,” the clerk announced.
The judge began by asking the public defenders how their client wished to be addressed, and they replied that he preferred his given name. The judge posed his next question directly to al-Ruqai.
“Do you speak and understand English?” the judge asked.
“No, I do not,” al-Ruqai replied in Arabic after waiting for the translation.
If true, that would mean he spent nearly five years living in England—for a time working in a pizzeria—without learning English. He had fled shortly before indictment S (10) 98 CR 1023 of 1998 was unsealed, accusing him and 20 other suspected al Qaeda members of bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing hundreds.
The judge took al-Ruqai at his word about his supposed lack of English and asked his age. Al-Ruqai again waited for the translator and answered in Arabic.
You almost had to wish that bin Laden himself had survived just so he could face such a moment.
“I’m 49,” he said.
He looked more like a tired and worn 60, perhaps because he is said to be suffering from hepatitis. He also may be suffering the lingering effects of his years of detention in Iran, where he enjoyed none of the rights to legal representation that the judge now spelled out.
“Do you understand what I’ve said?“ the judge asked.
“Naam,” al-Ruqai replied, that being Arabic for yes.
The judge asked if the case carries the death penalty, and the prosecutor said it does not. The proceedings then came to the point where a defendant is asked to enter a plea. Al-Ruqai is specifically charged with surveilling the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in preparation for the attack.
“Not guilty,” one of the public defenders said.
The judge ordered al-Ruqai remanded.
"There are no conditions under which he could be released before trial without endangering the safety of the community," the judge said.
The proceedings done, al-Ruqai was again rear cuffed. That raised the question of what do to with the Koran. One of the public defenders handed it to a marshal, who hesitated for just an instant before taking it. The marshal held the book in one hand as he helped guide al-Ruqai back toward his cell with the other.
Along with the proceeding itself, that seemingly minor deed constituted a small but important defeat for al Qaeda. It made all the more clear that we are not waging a war on a religion, no matter how desperately the bad guys have sought to goad us into doing so.
The arraignment ended with us being everything we truly are and nothing we are really not. Al-Ruqai went back to the cells like any other accused killer on remand.