WASHINGTON — U.S. prosecutors say they will bring a captured Libyan terrorism suspect before a judge in New York on Tuesday in a test of the Obama administration's stepped-up effort to use criminal trials, not drone strikes and military prisons, to punish international terrorists.
Abu Anas al Liby has been indicted with 20 other accused Al Qaeda operatives on charges of conspiring to kill Americans in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A computer expert, he was said to have assembled photographs of the embassies that were used by the bombers. He had been a fugitive for nearly 15 years.
U.S. special operations forces captured him near his home in Tripoli on Oct. 5 and transferred him to an American warship for questioning.
On Monday, U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara announced that Al Liby was in the custody of law enforcement officials. "The government expects that he will be presented before a judicial officer tomorrow," he said.
Such handling of a high-profile criminal defendant marked a departure from what had become the norm for dealing with suspected terrorists over the last 12 years.
The George W. Bush administration treated captured terrorism suspects as war prisoners and held them without charges at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama opposed sending more prisoners to Guantanamo, but his administration increasingly used drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Both approaches met with sharp criticism from abroad and from civil libertarians in this country.
In May, however, Obama spoke of winding down the long war in Afghanistan and the need to shift away from relying on drone strikes as a way to take out terrorists. He cited the high cost of killing or injuring innocent civilians and the growing resentment of American military power.
"America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them," Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University.
A deadly drone strike can be justified only "against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people" and when there is a "near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured," he said.
The 49-year-old Al Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed Ruqai, apparently fit the profile of a high-value terrorism suspect who could be captured alive and brought back to the United States for prosecution. He was questioned by U.S. agents, but none of his responses before he was given a Miranda warning can be used against him in court.
His case gives the Justice Department a new opportunity to show that a federal civilian court can fairly and effectively try a suspected international terrorist.
In 2009, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. had sought to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a federal court in New York for his purported role in plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. But New York officials balked because of safety concerns, and Congress then blocked the administration from transferring Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for trial. The administration retreated and opted to prosecute the suspected Sept. 11 plotters in a slow-moving military trial at Guantanamo.
All along, administration officials have insisted the federal court system could fairly impose justice on an accused international terrorist if given a chance.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) applauded the administration's decision to try Al Liby in a federal court in Manhattan.
"The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and we have a justice system that is second to none," he said. "President Obama, Atty. Gen. Holder and the administration's national security team should be applauded for their commitment to our national security and the rule of law."