While U.S. politicians Friday debated whether Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and former Al-Qaeda spokesman, should be tried in New York City, foreign policy analysts were speculating about the circumstances under which he was apprehended by U.S. authorities.
Abu Ghaith, who pleaded not guilty in a federal court in Manhattan Friday to charges that he had conspired to kill U.S. citizens as part of the 9/11 terrorist attack, had been living in Iran under some form of confinement since some months after the U.S. campaign that ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in late 2001.
It seems that someone in the U.S. government knew that he was about to lose his safe haven.
How he left or was permitted to leave Iran for Turkey, where he was initially apprehended in what some reports are calling a joint Turkish-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation, is one of the big questions that has not been answered to date.
The fact that a U.S. federal court issued a warrant for his arrest only last December – that is, just a month before the Kuwait-born Abu Ghaith, according to various published reports, entered Turkey – has added to the speculation about whether his departure from Iran was part of a larger deal.
“It’s unlikely that Iran would release Abu Ghaith ‘for free’”, one knowledgeable Western-based Iranian analyst told IPS Friday, suggesting that bin Laden’s son-in-law had the freedom to come and go as he pleased. The source asked not to be identified.
Indeed, the coincidence of the arrest order – which made Abu Ghaith the subject of an Interpol “red notice” that in turn gave Turkey the legal authority to detain him – with his departure from Iran has added to the intrigue.
“It seems that someone in the U.S. government knew that he was about to lose his safe haven,” said another U.S. source who stressed that it was still all a matter of speculation.
While some commentators have suggested that Iran may have expelled Abu Ghaith as a goodwill gesture toward the U.S. in anticipation of the latest round of negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme that got underway in Kazhakstan last month, other sources believe it may have been part of a complex, Turkish-mediated prisoner exchange between Syrian rebels and Iran.
Asked about what role, if any, Iran played in his eventual apprehension, the White House Friday referred the question to the Justice Department whose spokesman said he had no guidance to offer on that issue when asked by IPS.
“We have no comment about the roles of other countries in this,” the spokesman said.
If the trial goes forward, Abu Ghaith, who acted chiefly as a propagandist for Al-Qaeda and reportedly had no operational role in the organisation, will be the most senior Al-Qaeda leader to face a U.S. civilian court since 9/11.
“From at least May 2001 up to and around 2002, Abu Ghaith served alongside Osama bin Laden, appearing with bin Laden and his then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking on behalf of the terrorist organisation in support of its mission and warning that attacks similar to 9/11 would continue,” said the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, who described the alleged crimes of which he is accused as “terrible”.
The administration of President Barack Obama had wanted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational leader of the 9/11 attack who was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and taken to Guantanamo, in a New York City federal court.
But it changed its mind in 2010 amidst protests over the possible costs incurred by ensuring security for the trial. In 2011, his case was transferred to a military commission at Guantanamo where his trial, along with four co-defendants, began last May.
Some Republican lawmakers Friday protested the decision to try Abu Ghaith in New York, insisting that, as a senior member of Al-Qaeda, he should also be sent to Guantanamo to face a military commission.
“We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “The U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue. The president needs to send any captured Al-Qaeda members to Guantanamo.”
But human rights groups who have long called for closing Guantanamo and the military commissions praised the decision.
“Some people may feel on a gut level that terrorism suspects should be treated differently somehow, but it’s long been clear that federal courts are the best and fairest places to try them,” said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The military commissions in Guantanamo have been proven unable to deliver real justice.”
While his trial venue provided the major source of debate on his fate here Friday, foreign policy experts expressed more interest in how he came into U.S. hands. According to a number of reports, he entered Turkey on a fake Saudi passport and was apprehended at a hotel in Ankara in a joint CIA-Turkish operation in late January or early February.
The Turkish authorities held him for about one month but decided that he could not be charged with a crime. They also reportedly resisted U.S. requests for his extradition, although this could not be confirmed.
In the end, they arranged for his deportation to his native Kuwait via Jordan where he was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Feb. 28. He was brought to New York Mar. 1, according to his court-appointed defence attorney.
According to accounts in “Haqq News”, an independent jihadi news outlet pointed out by Cole Bunzel, an Al-Qaeda specialist at Princeton University, “Iranian authorities” suddenly demanded that Abu Ghaith leave their country early this year.
They subsequently took him to the coastal city of al-Faw in Iraq for transfer to the Kuwaiti island of Warba, but Kuwait, which stripped him of his citizenship after 9/11, got word of the operation, and it was scotched. At that point, Tehran sent him to Turkey instead.
If true, it suggested that Iran had decided to expel Abu Ghaith, leaving open the question as to why it would do so.
While some sources suggested that it may have been designed as a goodwill gesture to Obama, who had just begun his second term, others said it may be tied to a Turkish-mediated deal between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose forces captured 48 alleged members or veterans of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria in August, and Iran.
After a number of threats by the FSA during the autumn to execute their captives, the hostages were eventually released Jan. 9 in exchange for freedom for 2,000 Syrian civilians imprisoned by Damascus, several weeks before Abu Ghaith entered Turkey.
The Iranian analyst suggested that the CIA, which has consulted closely with the Turks throughout the Syrian civil war, could have pressed the Turks to make Abu Ghaith’s transfer part of the deal which was then carried out in stages.
It’s also possible, according to one former U.S. intelligence official who also asked not to be identified, that the chronology that has been presented in news reports is not accurate and that Abu Ghaith may have been transferred to Turkish custody at an earlier date.
“I would assume there has been a fair amount of dialogue between the U.S. and the Turks about this person in the past weeks or months,” he told IPS.
“Perhaps he came into the Turks’ hands last year, interrogation in Turkey yielded information that made him even more of a person of interest than before, and the Turks shared some of that information with the U.S., and that was the stimulus to issue an arrest warrant.”
U.S. officials told reporters that they do not believe Abu Ghaith can offer them much intelligence about Al-Qaeda’s operations since he’s been confined to Tehran for such a long time.
To the degree that he has information they want, it may be more about the activities of other Al-Qaeda members, hundreds of whom fled to Iran in 2001 and 2002, and their relationship with the Tehran regime.
When Iran offered to repatriate those Al-Qaeda members from the Arab Gulf States, including Kuwait, all countries rejected the offer.
In July 2011, the U.S. Treasury accused Tehran of having forged a “secret deal” with Al-Qaeda to allow it to use Iranian territory to transport money and operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and named one Al-Qaeda official allegedly based in Tehran as a key interlocutor with the Iranian authorities.