Conviction of bin Laden son-in-law in NY court fuels detention debate


The conviction of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law on terrorism charges in civilian court is fueling the partisan divide over how terrorism suspects should be detained and prosecuted.

Democrats say that Wednesday’s conviction of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith on conspiracy and terrorism charges shows the civilian judicial system is best equipped for prosecuting terrorists, and some are pointing to it as reason to move detainees in the military tribunal system at Guantánamo Bay into civilian courts.


“This successful prosecution again shows that the criminal justice system is not just a valid way to prosecute al Qaeda terrorists, but a better and more reliable way,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday.

“I look forward to seeing additional prosecutions of terrorists in federal criminal courts, including some of the terrorist detainees at Guantánamo. This is long overdue and possibly the only option for some detainees aside from indefinite detention or release,” she said in a statement.

Republicans said that while they were pleased with the outcome of the case, Abu Ghaith should have been kept in the military system because he is an enemy combatant in the war on terror.

“The nature of the crimes that were committed against the United States of America calls for a military tribunal,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill. “They are war criminals.”

The debate over how to detain terrorism suspects is a key element in the fight over closing Guantánamo Bay, which was one of President Obama’s first pledges when he took office in 2009.

The Obama administration had sought to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, in a civilian New York courtroom, but it backed off those plans after a major backlash.

Mohammed is now being tried along with four others in a military commission at Guantánamo that remains in pre-trial proceedings.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who pushed for a New York trial for Mohammed, said in a statement Wednesday that the Abu Ghaith verdict “has proven that proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home, as in other locations across our great nation.”

“We never doubted the ability of our [civilian] Article III court system to administer justice swiftly in this case, as it has in hundreds of other cases involving terrorism defendants,” Holder said. “It would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest.” 

In the Abu Ghaith trial, bin Laden’s son-in-law actively participated and testified in his own defense.

Abu Ghaith was al Qaeda’s spokesman and appeared in videos after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, days he also spent with bin Laden.

Democrats have argued that the civilian courts are better at quickly doling out justice for terrorism suspects, noting that the military tribunal system has worked slowly in the years since 9/11.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that Wednesday’s verdict “further underscores federal prosecutors’ tremendous record in securing criminal convictions in terrorism-related cases.”

“We can and should be proud of our courts, and we are not afraid to prosecute terrorists in them,” Leahy said.

Feinstein said that the conspiracy charges on which Abu Ghaith was convicted are “commonly handled” in the federal court system, but military commissions aren’t using those charges against detainees at Guantánamo.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the system worked in this case, and that he believed different terror suspects could wind up in both the civilian and military court systems.

But he said criticized the Obama administration for moving Abu Ghaith into the federal system — and reading him his Miranda rights — rather than keeping him as an enemy combatant to interrogate him for intelligence.

“Being convicted is a good thing, but I worry more about finding out what they’re up to than I do convicting them in a court of law,” Graham told The Hill. “Under the law of war, he could have been held as an enemy combatant, questioned about what he knows, and I think he was a treasure trove of information,” he said.

“Taking the son-in-law of bin Laden and Mirandizing him right off the bat was a huge mistake in terms of intelligence being lost.”