The LWOT: Ghailani receives life sentence in embassy bombings; U.K. announces counterterrorism reforms

Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation bring you a twice weekly brief on the legal war on terror. You can read it on or get it delivered directly to your inbox -- just sign up here.

Must-read: Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica has produced a lengthy profile of Sajid Mir, the shadowy Pakistani figure with close links to Pakistani security forces who reportedly ran the 2008 Mumbai attacks for Lashkar-e-Taiba (ProPublica).  

Ghailani receives life sentence in embassy bombings

A federal judge on Jan. 25 sentenced Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former CIA and Guantánamo Bay detainee, to life in prison for his role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings (DoJ, Washington Post, NYT). Convicted only on the charge of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property, Ghailani received the same sentence he would have received had he instead been convicted on the nearly 300 other charges of terrorism and murder that he faced. Defense lawyers had argued for a lighter sentence, because of the mistreatment Ghailani allegedly suffered at CIA "black sites" and Guantánamo (LAT).

Speaking about the sentencing, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced (DoJ):

Today, in Manhattan federal court, justice was served. Ahmed Ghailani is a remorseless terrorist, mass murderer, and Al Qaeda operative, and now he will spend the rest of his life in prison. As we said in court on the day this trial began, Ghailani was a vital member of the East African terror cell that murdered 224 innocent people and wounded thousands of others in the 1998 bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Finally, twelve-and-a-half years after those devastating and despicable attacks, Ahmed Ghailani will pay for his crimes.

Ghailani was the first Guantánamo detainee to face civilian trial, and his case became a central point in the debate over whether or not to try detainees in civilian or military courts. After the verdict, both sides remained firm, as advocates of civilian trials expressed satisfaction with the verdict, and opponents reiterating their case that Ghailani's conviction on only one count was, as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) put it, a "near-disaster" (National Journal, BBC).

Despite the ever-swirling controversy around closing Guantánamo and a recent law banning funds for the transfer of detainees to the United States, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that the United States remains "absolutely committed" to closing the prison (AFP). And for nearly two weeks some Guantánamo detainees have been staging a "sit-in" to protest their confinement, refusing to return to their cells at night (The Canadian Press).  

U.K. to reform controversial terror laws

British Home Secretary Theresa May announced a series of reforms to controversial counterterrorism policies on Jan. 26, focusing on reducing pre-charge detention, "control orders," stop-and-search powers and surveillance, and the power to ban extremist organizations (BBC, AJE, AFP). However, much of the debate surrounding the proposed reforms focused on the control orders, a system under which terrorism suspects (currently eight are subject to the orders) who cannot be brought to trial have their movements, communication and travel controlled by British authorities.

Under the new plan, called "terrorism prevention and investigation measures," the curfew time for suspects will be reduced to eight to 10 hours from 16, suspects will be allowed to use phones and internet (as long as authorities have the passwords to all accounts) and restrictions on travel will be eased (Guardian, Telegraph). The budget for surveilling those subject to these measures could reportedly be increased by $30 million (NYT).

The opposition Labour Party attacked Britain's coalition government for backing away from tough security policies during a time of heightened threats, while human rights groups and some commentators attacked the government for not going far enough in making changes (The National, BBC, Guardian). The BBC this week looks at how other countries around the world deal with thorny legal issues related to terrorism (BBC).

Also this week, the Guardian reported that since 2007 eight British citizens have been subject to "deprivation of citizenship" orders due to suspicions of terrorist involvement (Guardian). The orders ban the individuals from returning to the U.K. from abroad.

NW Flight 253 trial to start in October

In a hearing at a Detroit federal courtroom Jan. 25, Judge Nancy Edmunds set Oct. 4 as the trial date for Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused of attempting to set off a bomb hidden in his underwear about Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, 2009 (CNN, WSJ, AP, Reuters). At the hearing, Abdulmutallab, who pled not guilty despite having previously given information to investigators about his terrorism training in Yemen, insisted on representing himself despite the urgings of Judge Edmunds (AFP, Bloomberg, DFP).

Investigations continue into Russia blast

Russian authorities reportedly have a suspect in the planning of the suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport that killed 35 and wounded nearly 200 on Jan. 24, an ethnic Russian member of a North Caucacus militant group, Nogai Jamaat (BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Other sources claim the blast was perpetrated by Chechens or individuals from neighboring regions who had trained at camps in Pakistan (Telegraph). As Russian leaders condemned the bombing and promised vengeance, some commentators are looking again at Russia's anti-terrorism tactics and failure to end the long-running conflicts in several parts of the Caucasus (NYT, NYT, Reuters, BBC, BBC). Russia's parliament today will likely pass a bill to "color-code" the terrorist threat level in the country (AP).  

Trials and Tribulations

  • A federal judge this week re-sentenced Mohamad Hammoud, the first person ever convicted under the 1996 law banning the provision of "material support" to terrorist groups (AP). Hammoud, sentenced to 155 years in prison for giving $3,500 to the terrorist group Hezbollah, will instead serve an additional 30 years in prison before likely being deported to Lebanon. 
  • In a 28-minute speech released last weekend on jihadi internet forums, a man identified tentatively as Ustadh Ahmad Farooq, al Qaeda's head of "media and preaching" in Pakistan, reportedly said that drone strikes in the country were costing al Qaeda fighters and territory (NPR).
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's much-maligned "color-code" terrorism threat warning system will be phased out by April 27, to make way for a newer, more targeted, more specific threat warning system (AP, ABC, Reuters, Washington Post).
  • Spanish authorities have arrested a Pakistani man linked to a passport-forging ring that produced documents for Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Sri Lankan group the Tamil Tigers (AP).
  • A secret Saudi Arabian investigation into illicit funding of political campaigns has reportedly found that the Taliban and al Qaeda are still able to raise significant sums of money in the kingdom, despite efforts to stem the flow of cash to these groups (CNN).
  • A Jan. 26 bus bombing in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, killed five and injured 13 (CNN). Philippine authorities say the construction of the explosive suggests the involvement of "terror or crime groups" operating from the southern island of Mindanao.
  • Iranian authorities announced this week that they had caught two reported al Qaeda members in Western Iran, "propagating Wahhabism" - the strict Sunni Muslim religious practice associated with Saudi Arabia (The Canadian Press).
  • Researchers at Colorado State University have reportedly engineered plants to turn white if just a trace of the explosive TNT is present in the air around them (Fox News). The plants' response time before changing colors is, however, several hours.



The LWOT: Ghailani faces life at sentencing today; Alleged al Qaeda figure could be deported to U.S.

Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation bring you a twice weekly brief on the legal war on terror. You can read it on or get it delivered directly to your inbox -- just sign up here.

Ghailani faces sentencing, possible life in prison           

Former CIA and Guantánamo Bay detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is scheduled to be sentenced at 11 am today, after Judge Lewis A. Kaplan last Friday upheld Ghailani's conviction on one charge of conspiracy in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Tanzania (CBS, CNN, WSJ, NYT, Reuters, AP, AFP). Judge Kaplan dismissed as "without merit" defense claims that there was insufficient evidence of Ghailani's guilt, writing, "if there was any injustice in the jury's verdict, the victims were the United States and those killed, injured and otherwise devastated by these barbaric acts of terror, not Ghailani" (WSJ).

After losing the motion for a new trial, Ghailani's lawyers switched tactics, asking Judge Kaplan for leniency in his sentencing, citing their clients' alleged abuse while at CIA "black sites," his cooperation with federal authorities, and their claim that their client did not know the "details and scope of the conspiracy" to bomb the embassies until after fleeing Tanzania (WSJ). However, given public pressure and the evidence against Ghailani, whose case has become a lightning rod for critics of efforts to try former Guantánamo detainees in civilian courts, it seems likely that Kaplan will surpass the minimum 20-year sentence and instead sentence Ghailani to life in prison (AP).

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged last week that Guantánamo was not closing soon, but reiterated the need to close the prison to take away what he and other White House officials have termed a vital recruiting tool from al Qaeda (Miami Herald). House Armed Services chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-MO) warned President Barack Obama Friday not to make any changes in how "wartime detainees" are held without consulting Congress (NYT). Carol Rosenberg this week looks at why the effort to close Guantánamo has failed, putting some blame on Congress' refusal to allow detainees to be resettled in the United States (McClatchy).

And the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims that documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the  "unjustified homicide" of 25 to 30 detainees at military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo (CNN).

Top anti-terrorism official at Treasury to step down; Gulet Mohamed returns home

Obama's top Treasury Department official for terrorism and financial crimes, Stuart Levey, tendered his resignation to the White House on Jan. 24 (WSJ, AFP, AP). Levey, who served for several years in the same post under President George W. Bush, molded the Treasury Department into a key player in the fight against terrorism, using financial pressure and sanctions to try to curb funding to terrorist groups, and helped enforce and strengthen sanctions against Iran and North Korea (Bloomberg). Obama has nominated Levey's deputy, David Cohen, to take over when Levey leaves Treasury next month.

19-year old American Gulet Mohamed arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC last Friday, after several weeks of detention in Kuwait, during which time he was questioned by American and Kuwaiti officials about his travels to Yemen and Somalia in 2009, and allegedly beaten by Kuwaiti interrogators (Washington Post, NYT, AP). He says that during questioning, FBI officials asked him to become an informant, an offer he refused (Washington Post). Mohamed was reportedly placed on a no-fly list and barred from returning to the United States, before finally being allowed back; there are believed to be up to 10,000 individuals on U.S. no-fly lists at the moment, nearly 500 of whom are Americans.

The Washington Post has a fascinating profile of the deep concerns about House Homeland Security Committee chair Rep. Peter King's announced hearings on Muslim radicalization among King's Muslim constituents (Washington Post). The Post spoke to participants in a community discussion at a mosque King helped dedicate in 1993.

Alleged al Qaeda operative can be deported to U.S.

A U.K. judge ruled last Friday that Abid Naseer, a British resident arrested originally in 2009 on charges of plotting to stage bomb attacks in Manchester before being released and then re-arrested, could be extradited to the United States to face terror-related charges (BBC, CNN). Naseer successfully fought off a previous attempt to deport him to Pakistan, despite being deemed an "al Qaeda operative" by a panel of judges based on secret evidence (AFP). He was named in a U.S. indictment last July  for alleged involvement in plotting attacks in the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway (DoJ).

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly ready to announce long-awaited changes to controversial British counterterrorism policies, including control orders and the length of pre-charge detention of terrorism suspects (Guardian). May has been attacked by the opposition Labour party for announcing the changes after the law governing pre-charge detention lapsed Jan. 24, reducing maximum pre-charge detention time to 14 days instead of 28 (Guardian).

And former Gitmo detainees are locked in a courtroom battle with Britain's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies over the use of secret evidence in court (Guardian, Guardian).

Trials and Tribulations

  • A devastating suicide bombing struck the international terminal of Russia's Domodedovo Airport outside of Moscow on Jan. 24, killing at least 35 and injuring at least 180 (NYT, Washington Post, AP, ABC). Russia has suffered a series of deadly bombings in recent years, though no one has claimed responsibility for Monday's attack. However, authorities reportedly suspect the involvement of a "black widow" suicide bomber, one of a group of women who have engaged in suicide bombings in Russia (Guardian).
  • NPR's Dina Temple-Raston this week profiles Quintan Wiktorowicz, the renowned terrorism and radicalization expert and former official at the U.S. Embassy in London, who has just taken over as the senior director of global engagement at the National Security Council (NPR).
  • Mental health experts have submitted to military prosecutors their still-secret report on the competency to stand trial of Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 soldiers and wounding over two dozen others at a processing center at Fort Hood in November 2009 (CNN). If cleared to go to trial, Hasan could face the death penalty.
  • Egypt has reportedly arrested 19 Arabs "suspected of having links" to al Qaeda, allegedly on their way to join al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (AP, AFP).
  • Turkish authorities have reportedly arrested Waleed Abdullah Ebrahim Al Barghash, number 50 on Saudi Arabia's list of 85 most-wanted individuals suspected of connections to terrorism (Gulf News).
  • An Algiers court on Jan. 23 sentenced a man to a year in prison for making e-mail threats, allegedly on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), against the American and Canadian embassies to Algeria (AFP).