Inside the hushed courtroom, the defendant sat at a table with his lawyers. He wore dark blue prison garb, headphones to translate the proceedings and what appeared to be sneakers. His hands were restrained behind his back.
In 17 minutes, Friday’s hearing was over – and U.S. prosecutors had taken a crucial first step toward a criminal trial for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and a spokesman for al-Qaeda.
Apprehended in Jordan late last month, Mr. Abu Ghaith, 47, was charged with one count of conspiracy to kill American citizens and faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
On Sept. 12, 2001, prosecutors alleged in their indictment, he appeared with Osama bin Laden and warned the United States and its allies that “a great army is gathering against you,” urging the “nation of Islam” to “battle the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.”
George Venizelos, a senior official at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, likened Mr. Abu Ghaith’s position in al-Qaeda to that of “the consigliere in a mob family or a propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.”
Mr. Abu Ghaith does not appear to have had an operational role in al-Qaeda or in planning the Sept. 11 attacks.
His impending trial is the latest turn in a long-running and heated debate over how and where detained members of al-Qaeda should face justice.
In 2010, U.S. officials were forced to backtrack on an initiative to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and other senior al-Qaeda figures to stand trial at the federal courthouse in New York City.
The plan was scuttled after local officials, community groups and business leaders strenuously objected to the disruption they believed the trials would cause in lower Manhattan. In particular, they were unnerved by preparations for a heavy security presence involving watchtowers, snipers and helicopter surveillance.
The hearing on Friday morning, which unfolded only blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood, was notable for its normalcy. Outside, commuters hurried to work under swirling snow and no unusual security precautions were apparent. Inside, the courtroom was open to the public, who listened as the judge discussed matters of timing and evidence with a federal prosecutor and defence lawyer.
Mr. Abu Ghaith, a balding man with a salt-and-pepper beard, entered a plea of not guilty through his lawyer. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 6, at which point the judge said he would seek to set a start date for the trial.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who opposed the prior plan to bring al-Qaeda leaders to the city for trial, played down the impact of Mr. Abu Ghaith’s presence.
“No street is going to be closed because of this,” he said in a radio interview on Friday. “Would I prefer to have it elsewhere? I’m not going to get involved in that.”
Danny Chen owns an apartment in a complex just behind the courthouse and helped organize local opposition to the earlier trials. He said he learned of Mr. Abu Ghaith’s case on the radio. “I’m not sure [the U.S. government] even asked New York City [officials]” before bringing Mr. Abu Ghaith to town, Mr. Chen said. “The good part is there don’t appear to be snipers on our buildings.”
Some legal experts lauded the government’s decision to forgo a military tribunal and to instead try alleged terrorists in a civilian court. “We’ve done it before and I think we should do it again and again and again,” said David Kelley, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, who previously served as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan. “We’re going to do what we do best and we’ll do it right here in New York City.”