NEW YORK -- However you viewed the outcome of the terrorism trial of Sulaiman abu Ghaith, perhaps best known as Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, one thing was clear from its start until the moment the word “guilty” was read in court: the lingering effect of Sept. 11, 2001, on this city.
Prosecutors used it to portray Abu Ghaith as a hardened terrorist who sat beside Bin Laden and celebrated the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the attacks.
The defense sought to call as its star witness the self-proclaimed architect of the attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Potential jurors were queried about their memories of and feelings about Sept. 11. And those selected to sit on the jury were reminded of it in countless ways, from the videos prosecutors showed of jets slamming into the World Trade Center to Abu Ghaith’s own recollection of being driven to Bin Laden’s mountain hide-out on the night of Sept. 11, after being summoned by the Al Qaeda leader.
To the defense attorney, Stanley Cohen, it was enough to show that his client could not get a fair trial in the city where Al Qaeda’s strike was the hardest.
“9/11 changed the landscape forever more on so many levels,” Cohen said in an angry statement after the verdict. “When it comes to a prosecution in this country based on terrorism allegations, one need only repeat over and over and over again ‘9/11,’ and a jury shuts down, completely.”
Prosecutors hailed the verdict as proof that high-value terrorism suspects can be safely tried in civilian courts, avoiding the bottleneck at Guantanamo Bay. They made no apologies for their repeated references to the Sept. 11 attacks, even though the charges against Abu Ghaith did not include the plotting of or participation in the hijackings.
But they said Abu Ghaith was the face and the crucial voice of Al Qaeda after the attacks, and that his impassioned speeches steered countless young Muslims to the terrorist group.
“It was appropriate that this defendant, who publicly rejoiced over the attacks on the World Trade Center, faced trial in the shadow of where those buildings once stood,” said U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., a reference to the federal courthouse’s close proximity to the site of the attacks.
Holder said he hoped the trial would end the debate over whether it is better to hold terrorism suspects in U.S. prisons or at Guantanamo.
For now, at least, there is no indication that any of the suspects directly accused in Sept. 11 will be moved out of Guantanamo. Mohammed and four codefendants have been held there for years, and there is no trial in sight.
The Guantanamo debate reached its peak in 2009 when the Department of Justice declared it planned to move the suspected Sept. 11 plotters to New York for trial.
Opposition from some in Congress and from some Sept. 11 victims’ family members blocked the move, something that critics of Guantanamo say has cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.
One group, Human Rights First, said the annual cost of running the Guantanamo prison is $443 million, or nearly $2.9 million per detainee. The costs of housing a felon in a high-security U.S. federal prison is about $34,000 a year.
Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First, who sat in on Abu Ghaith’s trial, noted that Congress had made it impossible to transfer any Guantanamo detainees to the United States, but that could change. Lawmakers debate the issue every year before renewing the National Defense Authorization Act, and Eviatar said there was momentum toward lifting the transfer ban.
Among those who would support the move are some Sept. 11 family members. A few of them attended portions of Abu Ghaith’s trial and said that even though he was not directly charged in the crimes that took their loved ones’ lives, his conviction sent a message to terrorists and to their victims.
“We know this supposedly had nothing to do with 9/11 ... but any victim of terrorism should feel some type of consolation that there can be justice for people who promote terrorism and actively recruit people,” said Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son, Christian, died on Sept. 11. “This went very well, very smoothly,” she said of the trial. “I’d like to see more.”
More terrorism trials are coming up in New York, which could further test the justice system’s ability to stage smooth trials.
Abu Hamza Masri, also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, is due to go on trial next month on charges of orchestrating the 1998 kidnapping of a group of tourists in Yemen, which left four hostages dead. He’s also charged with conspiracy to help set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon in 1999 and 2000 and providing material and other support to anti-U.S. militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Later this year, Abu Anas al Liby, a Libyan whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed Ruqai, is scheduled for trial on charges of conspiring to kill Americans in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.