Sulaiman abu Ghaith, a top Al Qaeda leader and Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, was sentenced in New York on Tuesday to life in prison with no possibility of parole, becoming the highest-ranking advisor to the terrorist group to be convicted and now punished in a civilian court in the United States.
Abu Ghaith, 48, was sentenced on three federal charges, including conspiracy to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists. He was convicted in March after federal prosecutors accused him of working alongside Bin Laden in an Afghanistan cave after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and serving as Al Qaeda's spokesman by warning, often in grainy videos, that more terrorist strikes were coming.
Obama administration officials hailed the sentence — which came a year and half after Abu Ghaith was brought to the U.S. — as an example of how federal civilian courts can effectively handle terrorist prosecutions, in stark contrast to the lengthy, cumbersome and routinely delayed U.S. military tribunals for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"Justice has been served," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said. Ghaith, he said, "will never again set foot outside a prison cell," underscoring the power of the U.S. "court system to deliver swift and certain justice in cases involving terrorism defendants."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that since the 2001 attacks, the Justice Department has won more than 500 terrorism-related convictions in federal court. The Abu Ghaith case, she said, "once again shows our federal criminal court system works and that we can successfully bring Al Qaeda terrorists to justice."
But Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who has long pushed for interrogating terrorists rather than trying them in federal court, said she still believed Abu Ghaith should have been sent to Guantanamo.
"Americans would be safer if he had been detained and interrogated at Guantanamo Bay in order to collect the intelligence necessary to protect Americans and prevent future attacks," she said. "When we treat hard-core international terrorists like common criminals and focus on convictions rather than intelligence collection, we lose the information necessary to keep Americans safe."
Abu Ghaith was captured in Jordan in March of last year and turned over to U.S. authorities. During his trial, the government played videos of him warning the U.S. and the West that "a great army is gathering against you," that "the storms shall not stop, especially the American storm," and most ominously, that Muslims, children and opponents of the United States were "not to board aircraft and not to live in high-rises."
His defense team initially tried to get accused Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is awaiting trial in Guantanamo, to testify that Abu Ghaith was not a key figure in the terrorist group. Instead, Abu Ghaith testified for four hours, saying he was being "polite" when he responded to Bin Laden's call to speak on behalf of Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The jury deliberated just six hours before reaching guilty verdicts, leading defense attorneys to complain that there was never a chance of Abu Ghaith getting a fair trial in the United States.
On Tuesday, the defense team asked the judge for 15 years for their client, saying he was more of a mouthpiece than a real threat.
But prosecutors, led by U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara, said there was "no fathomable reason" for Abu Ghaith to receive anything less than life in prison.
"Abu Ghaith participated at the highest levels of Al Qaeda," Bharara said after the sentencing. "His purpose was to motivate Al Qaeda fighters and drive more men to Al Qaeda's mission to kill Americans."
According to published reports from inside the Manhattan courtroom, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan said Abu Ghaith showed "no remorse whatever." In handing down the life sentence, the judge told the Kuwaiti native and former cleric: "You continue to threaten. You sir, in my assessment, still want to do everything you can to carry out Al Qaeda's agenda of killing Americans."
Before being led away, Abu Ghaith said through an interpreter that his harsh sentence would only encourage others. "Today, and at the same moment where you are shackling my hands and intend to bury me alive, you are at the same time unleashing the hands of hundreds of Muslim youths," he told the judge, according to media reports.