Obama changes course, sends 9/11 plotters to military trial
In a stunning reversal, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Apr. 4 that the Department of Justice was dropping charges filed secretly in 2009 against the 9/11 plotters, including professed plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, clearing the way for the five to be tried in a military court at Guantánamo Bay, where they have been imprisoned since 2006 (NYT, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Telegraph). The move marks the denouement of a nearly two-year effort to try the men in U.S. civilian court, a move that engendered staunch criticism from Republicans and some New York Democrats when Holder announced it in Nov. 2009, and makes it even less likely that President Barack Obama will make good on his long-stated plans to close the prison facility at Guantánamo. The five, who were all held in secret CIA detention facilities before their transfer to Guantánamo, originally sought to plead guilty at Guantánamo in 2008, but still-unanswered questions were raised as to whether or not military commissions allow defendants to plead guilty in a capital case (Miami Herald).
In terms both defiant and disappointed, Holder placed the blame before Congress for the failed effort to try the men in civilian court, saying (Lawfare Blog):
[W]e were prepared to bring a powerful case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators - one of the most well-researched and documented cases I have ever seen in my decades of experience as a prosecutor...
Unfortunately, since I made that decision, Members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue. As the President has said, those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security. Decisions about who, where and how to prosecute have always been - and must remain - the responsibility of the executive branch.
However, Holder said that in the interests of seeking justice for the families of 9/11 victims and in the face of continuing restrictions, the decision was made to refer the men to military trial. He also unsealed an 80-page indictment from 2009 against Mohammed as well as Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Al-Hawsawi (available here) tracing in detail the roles each allegedly played in the 9/11 attacks (AP). The decision to refer the charges to military court was welcomed by Congressional Republicans and several others and slammed by civil liberties advocates, who said any decision to try the men in military courts lacked legitimacy and opened the door to challenges based on the court's procedures and the harsh interrogations the men endured in CIA custody (NYT, LAT, Legal Times, SCOTUS Blog).
Also Apr. 4, the Supreme Court declined to hear cases filed by three Guantánamo detainees challenging D.C. Circuit Court rulings, siding with the Obama administration and effectively confirming the rulings of the lower court (AP, CSM, Lawfare Blog, LAT). The court also did not rule on the case of Kiyemba vs. Obama, which asks whether or not judges have the right to order detainees to be freed over the objection of the executive branch (SCOTUS Blog).Attorney General Holder also wrote a letter to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Apr. 4, assuring him that no Guantánamo detainees will be transferred to the Thomson Correctional Facility, an Illinois prison originally intended to house Gitmo detainees before Congressional opposition blocked the move (AP).
Former Islamic militants play role in Libya revolt
The Wall Street Journal reports this weekend that a former Guantánamo detainee who worked for Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s, Sufyan Ben Qumu, and two Libyans who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Abdel Hakim al-Hasady and Salah al-Barrani, are playing key roles in the ongoing uprising against dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi (WSJ). An Algerian security official told Reuters on Apr. 4 that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had taken delivery of advanced weapons seized from Libyan stocks, including SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, prompting U.S. officials to question rebel leaders about the claims (Reuters, Reuters).
And in an important change, American officials are moving to withdraw their support from embattled Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, leaving the U.S. to plan for future counterterrorism operations in Yemen without Saleh's government in Sana'a (CNN, NYT, CSM).
Trials and Tribulations
- Saudi Arabian state news on Apr. 2 gave the first detailed accounting of terrorism prosecutions in the country, announcing that 5,080 people had been convicted on terrorism in the country over an unclear period of time, and 11,527 detained (Reuters, The National).
- A Brazilian newspaper reported this week that according to Brazilian and Western intelligence reports 21 men linked to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used Brazil, which has no specific anti-terrorism laws, as a base to conduct fundraising and plan operations (Telegraph).
- Bush administration officials reportedly visited Osama bin Laden's son Omar in Qatar in late 2008 to ask him to help them find his father, whose side he left months before the 9/11 attacks (Telegraph). The younger bin Laden refused, and said that he had had no contact with his father in 10 years.
- A Jordanian man was arrested Apr. 4 after walking into the offices of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked opposition political party in Jordan with what later turned out to be a fake suicide belt, and demanded a meeting with the group's director (NYT).
- Canadian authorities are investigating the mysterious case of a young Toronto woman of Somali descent who disappeared suddenly this year for Somalia, fueling speculation that she may have been recruited by the al Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabaab (Globe and Mail, Toronto Star).
- Irish and British leaders have roundly condemned the killing of a police constable Apr. 2, who died after a bomb exploded under his car in Omagh, Northern Ireland (BBC).
- A former Syrian agent imprisoned in England for tricking his pregnant girlfriend into bringing a bomb on board an El Al plane in 1986 may soon be released on parole, though his sentence lasts until 2031 (Telegraph).