Officials tell NBC News he had been a prisoner in Iran for most of the past decade and is scheduled to appear in federal court Friday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, who acted as a spokesman for al-Qaida, has been apprehended, transported to New York and charged with conspiracy to kill Americans, according to court documents unsealed Thursday.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith appeared alongside bin Laden in a 2001 video in which they took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and warned of more, before he dropped out of sight for more than a decade before his arrest.
"I commend our CIA and FBI, our allies in Jordan, and President Obama for their capture of al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, who first announced the news.
"I trust he received a vigorous interrogation, and will face swift and certain justice," added King, who is also chairman of the Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
Prosecutors say from at least May 2001 to around 2002, Abu Ghaith served alongside bin Laden, appearing with him and his then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking on behalf of the terrorist organization and in support of its mission, and warning that attacks similar to those of September 11, 2001 would continue.
The government says around May 2001, Abu Ghaith urged individuals at a guest house in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to swear allegiance to bin Laden. On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the United States, bin Laden summoned Abu Ghaith and asked for his assistance. He agreed to provide it.
On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, Abu Ghaith appeared with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and spoke on behalf of al-Qaida, warning the United States and its allies that "[a] great army is gathering against you" and called upon "the nation of Islam" to do battle against "the Jews, the Christians and the Americans," the court document says.
Also, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Abu Ghaith delivered a speech in which he addressed the then-U.S. Secretary of State and warned that "the storms shall not stop, especially the Airplanes Storm," and advised Muslims, children, and opponents of the United States "not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises."
Abu Ghaith arranged to be, and was, successfully smuggled from Afghanistan into Iran in 2002, where he spent most of the decade, U.S. officials said.
Even as government officials applauded the arrest of Abu Ghaith, his transport to the United States stirred controversy among lawmakers who were apparently caught by surprise by the news.
"We believe the administration's decision here to bring this person to New York City, if that's what's happened, without letting Congress know is a very bad precedent to set," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who held a press conference with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
"And when we find somebody like this, this close to bin Laden and the senior al-Qaida leadership, the last thing in the world we want to do, in my opinion, is put them in civilian court. This man should be in Guantanamo Bay," Ayotte said.
"So we're putting the administration on notice," said Graham. "We think that sneaking this guy into the country, clearly going around the intent of Congress when it comes to enemy combatants, will be challenged."
Earlier, in an interview on MSNBC, House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers, R-Mich., strongly criticized the administration for bringing Abu Ghaith to the United States.
Rogers, a former FBI agent, said that Mirandizing a top al-Qaida suspect and bringing him to the United States for trial creates a host of problems — instead of sending him to the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was built to handle high value prisoners.
"Al-Qaida leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States to stand trial," Rogers said. "We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy. The U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue."
The Obama administration has been trying to clear out Guantanamo and not bring any new prisoners there.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said it's fine with him if Abu Ghaith is put on trial in New York because key state and city officials had been consulted in advance, unlike in the case of terror suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
"Unlike with KSM, Kelly and others had been consulted ahead of time about this and they gave the green light to do it. As you know, (Police Commissioner) Ray Kelly, Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg and I opposed the trial of (Mohammed) in New York and we successfully made sure that didn't happen," said Schumer. "On issues like this, I defer to Commissioner Kelly, and I think the mayor does as well. And he thinks it's OK to do it here, and I'll go by that," Schumer said.
Rapho-Gamma via Getty Images
Al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, left, and Osama bin Laden in a photo taken from a video and released by Al Jazeera in 2001. In the video, which emerged shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Abu Gaith said: "Americans should know the storm of planes will not stop."
Jordanian sources confirmed that Abu Ghaith was sent by Turkey via Jordan to Kuwait, and intercepted in Jordan and brought to the U.S.
According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Turkish officials captured Abu Ghaith in the capital Ankara, where a court ruled he had entered the country illegally with a fake passport. The Turkish government then ostensibly deported Abu Ghaith to his birthplace Kuwait, but arranged for him to transit through Jordan where he was ultimately taken into custody by U.S. law enforcement, the officials said.
U.S. officials told NBC that prior to his interception in Turkey, Abu Ghaith, who dropped out of sight after 2002, had spent most of a decade in Iran.
"Nobody's heard a peep. Some people thought he was being held prisoner in Iran, others thought he might be dead," said Evan Kohlmann, an American counter-terrorism analyst for NBC News.
NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and Moufaq Khatib NBC News producer in Jordan contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Thu Mar 7, 2013 11:47 AM EST