By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Suleiman Abu Ghaith, one of Osama bin Laden's sons-in-law and a former spokesman for al Qaeda, heads to trial next week in New York on terror-related charges in a case that could feature testimony from several al Qaeda figures.
Prosecutors have accused Abu Ghaith of conspiring to kill Americans immediately after the deadly September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, just blocks away from the federal courthouse where his trial will take place.
Specifically, the government contends that Abu Ghaith spent time in Afghanistan with bin Laden shortly after September 11, 2001, and recorded several statements threatening further attacks against Americans.
Lawyers for Abu Ghaith have argued in court papers that the government has failed to show that Abu Ghaith was a member of al Qaeda, that he was aware of any plots against the United States or that he was involved in the planning of any attacks.
The Kuwaiti is one of the highest-profile defendants to face federal terror charges. In addition to conspiring to kill Americans, he is also charged with providing material support and resources to terrorists and conspiring to provide such support.
As in other terror cases, an anonymous jury will hear the trial, which is scheduled to commence with the selection of jurors on Monday.
AL QAEDA FIGURES COULD TESTIFY
The trial is the latest event in a debate over whether radical militants should be tried as combatants before military commissions rather than as criminal defendants in civilian courts.
Advocates of the latter point to Justice Department statistics that show the government has brought nearly 500 terror-related cases in federal courts since September 11, 2001. In contrast, only eight individuals have been convicted via military commissions; six pleaded guilty, while the two who were convicted after a trial later saw their convictions overturned.
The Abu Ghaith trial could include testimony from a number of al Qaeda members, including the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom Abu Ghaith's lawyers claim can provide testimony that their client was not a part of any conspiracy to attack Americans.
On February 19, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan delayed the trial by a week to allow them to submit written questions to Mohammed, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for several years awaiting his own trial there before a military tribunal.
The defense is also seeking to introduce testimony from Salim Hamdan, bin Laden's former driver, who was the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that found the military commissions unconstitutional. Hamdan, now in Yemen, was found guilty under a revised system, but his conviction was overturned in 2012 when a federal appeals court found that providing support for terrorism was not a war crime at the time of his alleged conduct.
Like Mohammed, Hamdan can testify that Abu Ghaith did not participate in any plots against Americans, defense lawyers have said.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, will introduce testimony via video feed from a former al Qaeda member in Great Britain that Abu Ghaith was aware in advance of the group's failed attempt to blow up airliners using explosives hidden inside attackers' shoes.
The witness has not been named in court papers, but based on the government's description, it appears to be Saajid Badat, the so-called second shoe bomber who plotted with Richard Reid to execute the plan before deciding not to follow through.
Badat, a British citizen, pleaded guilty in Britain and is cooperating with the government; he has previously testified in other terror cases, including the successful prosecution in Brooklyn federal court of Adis Medunjanin for planning a suicide bomb attack on New York City subways.
In 2010, Kaplan oversaw the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court. He was acquitted of all but one charge in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa but was still sentenced to life in prison.
Kaplan will also preside over the trial this fall of Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, a Libyan seized by U.S. forces in October, and two other defendants, all charged in connection with the embassy bombings.
Abu Ghaith was captured abroad last year.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Grebler)