By Jason Burke The Guardian
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, one of the most high-profile al-Qaida militants sought by US intelligence services, was in US custody on Thursday following a secret operation involving Jordanian intelligence services, the CIA and the FBI.
The US attorney general, Eric Holder, confirmed the detention and US authorities announced that he had been charged with a conspiracy to kill US nationals. He was due to appear in court in New York on Friday.
The exact details of the operation were still vague, but it appears to have taken place in Jordan, a US ally in the region. Abu Ghaith, a 47-year-old Kuwaiti whose real name is not publicly known, is one of the last of the militants active in the late 1990s and early part of the last decade to be killed or captured by US intelligence services of their allies. Bin Laden died in a US special forces raid on a house in the northern Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad in May 2011.
Al-Qaida has since been led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian extremist.
Initial public confirmation of the capture of Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden and a former spokesman for the group, came from Peter King, a senior Republican member of the House intelligence committee and former chairman of the House committee on homeland security.
“I commend our CIA and FBI, our allies in Jordan, and President Obama for their capture of al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith. I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice,” King said in a statement.
Holder confirmed the charges later. “No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” he said in a statement accompanying the indictment against Abu Ghaith.
Abu Ghaith gained an international profile when he appeared in videos made by al-Qaida and widely disseminated in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His movements over following years have been unclear though it appears likely that he fled Afghanistan to Iran along with hundreds of other militants after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Abu Ghaith entered Turkey last month from Iran, where he appears to have been held under house arrest. Scores of militants and even relatives of Bin Laden have been allowed to leave Iran by local security services over the last two years.
Detained after being identified in the luxury hotel where he was staying in Ankara following information passed to local security services by US agencies, Abu Gaith was later released when a local court found that he had committed no offence in Turkey which could justify continued incarceration, local news reported.
The US government is believed to have asked for access to interrogate Abu Ghaith, who has been stripped of his Kuwaiti citizenship, in Turkey shortly after his arrest. Extradition was also discussed. The fugitive militant is thought to have been hoping to return to Kuwait but appears to have been deported to Jordan from where he swiftly passed into US custody.
A Jordanian security official confirmed to the Associated Press that Abu Ghaith was handed over last week to US law enforcement officials under both nations’ extradition treaty. The official declined to disclose other details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
According to Reuters, quoting unidentified US sources, the FBI took the lead role in the operation under the auspices of an inter-agency body known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. The group was created by the Obama administration after the president ordered a CIA programme in which militant suspects were detained and held in a network of secret prisons, during the Bush administration, to be shut down.
The suspects were sometimes subjected to controversial and physically coercive “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and also sometimes transferred without trial to third countries under a procedure known as “extraordinary rendition”. Abu Ghaith has not featured among those militants mentioned as active threats by intelligence services in the UK and elsewhere for many years.