The LWOT: Middle East unrest tops counterterrorism agenda; Media wary of covering 9/11 Gitmo trial

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Middle East instability tops counterterrorism agenda

FBI Director Robert Mueller III in Congressional testimony on Apr. 6 said that the FBI was concerned about terrorist acts from Libya and was conducting interviews of Libyans living in the United States, a story reported a day earlier by the Wall Street Journal (ABC, WSJ, Bloomberg, CNN). In the same hearing, Mueller faced questions about a Fox News report that the 9/11 Commission was not told about an arrest warrant that was readied against radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and then dropped on Oct. 10, 2002, just after Awlaki returned from a seven-month trip to Yemen (Fox News).

Algeria's Deputy Foreign Minister on Apr. 5 expressed concern about what he called a growing Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presence in Libya, as CIA agents reportedly continued to probe for information about Libya's nebulous rebel movement, which continues to deny the involvement of al Qaeda in its fight against Col. Muammar Qaddafi's rule (Reuters, NPR, LAT). Robert Chesney of Lawfare Blog provides a detailed summary of the memo released Apr. 7 by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel providing the legal justifications for American military intervention in Libya absent Congressional approval (Lawfare Blog).

The Telegraph reports that British intelligence files show that former Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who defected to Britain last week, directed operations against Libyans living in the United Kingdom when he ran Libya's embassy in London in the early 1980s (Telegraph). Koussa yesterday was interviewed by Scottish police in relation to the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people in 1988 (BBC, WSJ).

Analysts also continue to worry that instability in Yemen will provide an opening for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which seized a major town near the southern port of Aden on Apr. 5, to expand its presence in the country (NPR, Telegraph). The United States was reportedly on the verge of providing the first installment of nearly $1 billion in counterterrorism and other aid to the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before the outbreak of anti-regime protests in February caused the program to be pulled (WSJ).

Media wary of covering 9/11 Gitmo trial

Several media outlets are reportedly planning to push the Defense Department to grant them freer access in covering the trial of the 9/11 plotters at Guantánamo Bay than has been given in the past (Bloomberg, TIME). The Washington Post on Apr. 5 discussed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's continued belief that civilian courts are the right venue for the plotters, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while the New York Times looked at the security measures that have been put in place over the years at the federal court and nearby jail in lower Manhattan to allow the trials of dangerous suspects (Washington Post, NYT).

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) in an op-ed this week called for Holder to resign over his vocal preference for civilian trials, while others weighed in on the merits and drawbacks of military commissions (New York Post, WSJ, Politico, Guardian). And the New York Times talks to a group of Chicago lawyers who have represented a series of Guantánamo detainees pro-bono over the past several years about the challenges of working on Guantánamo cases (NYT).

A New York judge this week indicated that she was sympathetic but unlikely to grant a petition by a psychologist calling for an investigation of another psychologist, John Francis Leso, for allegedly having "developed, recommended, and implemented psychologically and physically abusive interrogation tactics during his tenure at Guantánamo" (Courthouse News).

NY State Senator to hold controversial terrorism hearing today

A New York state senator, Republican Greg Ball, has scheduled a day-long hearing today into emergency preparedness and terrorism responses in New York, but has provoked controversy for his plan to call as witnesses known critics of Islam, including Frank Gaffney and Nonie Darwish, who heads the group "Former Muslims United" (NYT, New York Daily News, Gothamist). While Ball criticized his detractors as being too focused on "political correctness" another state senator said, "Simply put, this [hearing] is gross racial and religious profiling. That is neither appropriate for the New York state Senate to be doing, nor is it a wise and prudent course for criminal justice and homeland security" (

In Washington State, a judge has ordered sealed the court records into the investigation of Kevin Harpham, a suspected white supremacist accused of placing a bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. day parade in Spokane (AP, The Spokesman-Review). Also this week, police in Maryland arrested a man on charges linked to the explosion of a pipe bomb in front of a Potomac, MD home last month (AP).

Finally, The U.S. terror warning system will be replaced on Apr. 27 with a new system consisting of two levels, "elevated" and "imminent" with reports to be broadcast when necessary over Facebook and Twitter (Guardian).

Trials and Tribulations

  • Kimberly Dozier reports Apr. 8 on the continued use of secret prisons to temporarily hold terrorism suspects in Afghanistan (AP). Detainees are reportedly subject to harsh conditions, though the most severe interrogation practices used during the George W. Bush administration are no longer in place. 
  • The U.S. State Department announced Apr. 6 that it was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the location of Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri, who heads the terrorist organization Harakat ul-Jihad ul-Islami (HUJI) and is believed to have orchestrated attacks against U.S., Indian and Pakistani targets in South Asia (State, AP).
  • The Wall Street Journal reports this week on the return over the past several months of al Qaeda fighters to eastern Afghanistan, where they have reportedly set up safehouses, training camps and other facilities (WSJ). NATO yesterday denied that a "large comeback" of al Qaeda in Afghanistan was taking place (AFP). 
  • Ethiopian authorities announced this week that they would try 121 suspected members of the banned Oromo Liberation Front on terrorism charges, despite objections from human rights groups (Reuters).
  • Canadian prosecutors will have one hour today to argue that an Ontario court should reinstate extradition proceedings against Abdullah Khadr, the older brother of Guantánamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr, who is wanted in the United States on charges that he procured weapons for al Qaeda (Toronto Star).
  • A British judge has lifted the control order against a terrorism suspect and British national identified only as BM, despite concerns that he would become involved in terrorism again (Telegraph). Two of BM's brothers are believed to have departed the United Kingdom to join al Qaeda in Pakistan, and another is in jail for an al Qaeda-related plot.
  • British and Scottish police have arrested two men in the bombing murder of a Catholic constable in Northern Ireland this week, as British authorities announced Apr. 5 that they would continue juryless trials in Northern Ireland for terrorism suspects (BBC, CNN, Guardian, Reuters).
  • A man claiming to be Chechnyan insurgent leader Doku Umarov telephoned Radio Free Europe this morning to deny rumors of his death at the hands of Russian forces and to promise more attacks against Russian targets (Reuters).
  • Pakistani police arrested a man yesterday over his alleged links to failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, while a Pakistani anti-terrorism judge denied bail Apr. 5 for three men accused of having provided money to Shahzad (ET, Dawn, ET).



The LWOT: 9/11 plotters to be tried at Guantánamo

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.

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).

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