Former bin Laden spokesman in US custody

Gaith-bin-Laden-Zawahiri.jpg

Sulaiman Abu Gaith, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri, from an al Qaeda propaganda tape. Image from BBC/AP.

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former spokesman for Osama bin Laden, was arrested in Jordan and is currently being held in New York City. Abu Ghaith was initially detained in Turkey, according to Reuters, and then deported to Jordan, where the FBI and Jordanian authorities took him into custody.

The US Department of Justice has indicted Abu Gaith for conspiracy to “murder United States nationals anywhere in the world.”

Abu Ghaith, who is bin Laden’s son-in-law, fled Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and sheltered inside Iran for the better part of a decade afterwards. The Iranians held him under a loose form of house arrest.

The Kuwaiti press first reported that Abu Ghaith had been freed from Iranian custody and traveled to Afghanistan in 2010. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman freed by Iran.] According to press accounts at the time, he was one of several al Qaeda leaders who was released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was kidnapped by al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan.

The details of this trade are not entirely clear.

It is known that the Iranians would not outright free some senior al Qaeda leaders from their custody, even while allowing others to operate a facilitation network. So, al Qaeda decided to force their hand by kidnapping and beating an Iranian operative doubling as a diplomat in Pakistan.

That deal was first reported by slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who wrote about the exchange for the Asia Times and in his book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Shahzad, who was killed under mysterious circumstances in Pakistan, reported that the hostage exchange led to al Qaeda’s “broadening [of] ties with Iran.” Al Qaeda, according to Shahzad, also received more sophisticated weaponry from Iran as part of the deal.

According to some accounts, Abu Ghaith operated inside Iran since his relocation there after the Sept. 11 attacks, including in more recent times. He was first captured after leaving Iran for Turkey earlier this year.

In 2002, Abu Ghaith openly threatened additional mass casualty attacks on the US. “Al Qaeda has the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands,” Abu Ghaith said in an online statement.

In his autobiography At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former CIA director George Tenet explains that the US government “had to consider the possibility that Abu Ghaith was attempting to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction that might greatly exceed the death toll of 9/11.”

The CIA and FBI investigated numerous leads, but no such plot was uncovered.

Ties to Faylaka Island attack

According to declassified and leaked Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) documents, Abu Ghaith was tied to the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for a more conventional attack against American forces. On Oct. 8, 2002, an al Qaeda cell opened fire on US Marines conducting training exercises on the Faylaka Island off of Kuwait. One US Marine was killed and another seriously wounded.

The attack was carried out by al Qaeda trainees with direct ties to Abu Ghaith.

The leader of the Faylaka Island cell was a Kuwaiti named Anas al Kandari, who was killed during the shootout with the Marines. JTF-GTMO’s files indicate that Anas al Kandari attended advanced sniper training at one of bin Laden’s facilities in Afghanistan prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Ghaith, Fayiz al Kandari (Anas al Kandari’s cousin) and some of bin Laden’s sons were also allegedly part of the same training class.

In his book, The Martyr’s Oath, Stewart Bell details how Abu Ghaith recruited and indoctrinated Anas al Kandari, as well as other al Qaeda recruits, in Kuwait. Fayiz al Kandari is a current detainee at Guantanamo and had his own ties to Abu Ghaith and bin Laden, according to the JTF-GTMO files.

Abu Ghaith’s role in recruiting young Kuwaitis for al Qaeda eventually led authorities to strip him of his citizenship.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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11 Comments

  • gb says:

    I hope they hold the trial for this savage in GTMO where no one will ever see or hear from him again

  • mike merlo says:

    good catch

  • Pat says:

    Two out of the three people in that image are no longer at bay.

  • JZarris says:

    Try him like the criminal he is, in the U.S.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Hm. I wonder what information we might be able to get out of him?

  • irebukeu says:

    The look on your face as you realize you are landing in Jordan and your fate is sealed-PRICELESS

  • My2Cents says:

    He is currently being held in New York, so it will be a trial in the US, and almost certainly held in New York. Obama now has his test case to get the rest of the prisoners held at GTMO transferred to civilian courts.
    Now we will get to see if they can hold the trial without compromising the intelligence networks.

  • jhenry says:

    This whole thing confuses me.
    No major announcement from the Administration, and instead Rep. King goes to the media.
    What happened to the HVT Interrogation Group that got stood up after the attempted Christmas airline bombing? Wouldn’t it be nice to gather intel on Iran and it’s relationship with AQ, how Abu Ghaith got to Turkey, and how he got rolled up?
    The details of his arrest could become discoverable as part of the trial (all of the intel leading up to his arrest and his rendition from Turkey). That was the whole reason for the military tribunals.
    Given the past experience in US trials, an acquittal could be possible…

  • Nolan says:

    This news is also very interesting considering that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith criticized al-Qaida leadership and seemingly chastised them for their current methodology (especially aimed towards Zawahiri, even though he never named names). He wrote a “book” back in 2010, and also wrote the forward for Mahfouz Ould Walid’s (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) book back in 2010. Both of these men have been critical of al-Qaida leadership, although it must be noted that they certainly have not renounced militancy. I’ve seen comments elsewhere of people complaining about us capturing Abu Ghaith alive to bring him to trial, but I think the above comments hit the metaphorical nail on the head. This is an opportunity for the Administration to test out trying a major terrorist figure on US soil. That scenerio has certainly played out before but this is the first time we can try someone connected to 9/11. There’s not much to lose because he’s relatively insignificant in al-Qaida’s current form. However, his role as spokesman in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 will warrant a conviction no doubt, even though he had no direct planning role. The most important thing to be garnered from this individual will be the massive intelligence he can give us on the al-Qaida leadership that was held in Iran and to what degree they were allowed movement, how much freedom they had to conduct operations (which it seems they certainly had), and what kind of relationship they had with the Iranian government. There’s also the possibility he could have knowledge of the movements of Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who I would argue were the two most important al-Qaida members hiding in Iran. Also the possibility that he knows where the remainder of bin Laden’s family could be, specifically Hamza since Saad has been confirmed dead. Abu Ghaith and Mauritani were released in 2010 in seems, around the same time as Saif al-Adel and the rest after the abducted Iranian diplomat ordeal. Keep in mind that when Abu Hafs al-Mauritani was extradited to his homeland he reportedly was interviewed by Americans, probably the FBI, before being sent on his way. We know these men have important knowledge even though their roles have been greatly reduced in the years since 9/11 in terms of al-Qaida leadership. Perhaps Mauritania would not let us have him, or perhaps we did not deem him significant enough a figure to prosecute. For Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, his direct connections to bin Laden, Muhsin al-Fadhli, the above mentioned Anas al-Kandari and his role as former spokesman will make for enough an interesting trial. I’m just eager to see what he has to say about his time in Iran.

  • Stephanie says:

    Nolan,
    You’ve got some good info.
    What specifically did Abu Ghaith criticize about Al-Qaida’s methodology?

  • Nolan says:

    Stephanie,
    This is a good article on the manner although there are numerous others //www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LL10Df04.html
    In this 2010 Syed Saleem Shahzad article he speaks about the writings of Abu Ghaith concerning militant leaders. Shahzad points out that while Abu Ghaith never names them, he is certainly criticizing top al-Qaida leaders with whom he so closely worked. In the work, Abu Ghaith states: “They took decisions in haste that resulted in a big defeat.”
    “They think that they are right all the time and they are encircled by a bunch of advisers who do not qualify to give advice. Ironically, this situation stands in the way of jihad, which belongs to the ummah [Muslim world] and their decisions affect the whole Muslim world. This is such a delicate matter as strategy is supposed to be consulted with all Muslim groups, scholars and the Muslim intelligentsia in general.”
    “It means isolation of yourself and the mujahideen from the mainstream Islamic movements and from the Muslim world. It makes the task easier for the enemy to isolate you and target you,”
    I would say he was speaking out against al-Qaida decision making that resulted in the 9/11 attacks and the severe consequences suffered by their brand of jihad since. He is, as I said, by no means renouncing violence and extremism, but just the methods that brought world opinion of their “causes” and methods to such a low. I mean, several jihadist groups had, in the 1980s, been viewed favorably. He also takes a shot at the Shura Council of al-Qaida. It is no secret that the the Arab members look negatively upon the large number of Egyptians in the upper echelons of al-Qaida. Thus the criticism is aimed at them as well, and I would say especially Zawahiri. Abu Ghaith’s ideas of jihad seemed to have evolved differently than al-Qaida’s over the years. Its no mistake that he would be writing along side of Abu Hafs al-Mauritani who has repeatedly claimed that he was outspoken against al-Qaida leadership for the 9/11 attacks. Regardless of whether it was because of the new found pressure on their lives, or because of actual ideology differences matters not. As I said before, with Abu Ghaith’s case being a test of sorts for future 9/11 trials, the government will attempt to nail him to the wall. His video recordings and appearances after 9/11 will be his undoing despite any ideological differences or regrets he currently harbors.

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