Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Trying Osama's son-in-law in New York makes sense

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 11:32 AM EST, Fri March 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen says role of Osama's son-in-law has been exaggerated
  • He says it's a good thing he will be tried in New York, not sent to Guantanamo
  • New York courts have a perfect record of convicting al Qaeda members since 9/11, he says
  • Bergen: Hardly anything has been accomplished by Guantanamo military panels

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- George Venizelos, the FBI's assistant director in charge, asserted Thursday in a written statement that the recently arrested "Sulaiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al Qaeda, comparable to a consigliere in a mob family."

This is overblown. Though he was Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Abu Ghaith is far from a big fish in al Qaeda.

Bin Laden had quite a number of sons-in-law, having sired some two dozen children with five wives.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

On Friday, Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty in federal court in downtown Manhattan to charges of conspiracy to kill Americans. But the significance of Abu Ghaith's court appearance was not that he is a big player in al Qaeda. It's that the Obama administration has shipped him to New York for trial rather than sending him to Guantanamo to face a military commission, as has been the case with other members of bin Laden's inner circle.

Nothing in his past suggested Abu Ghaith was suited to play any operational role within al Qaeda. Before he joined al Qaeda a few months before 9/11, Abu Ghaith had been a high school teacher in his native Kuwait; he didn't have any experience fighting in other holy wars as most of al Qaeda's leaders had.

Abu Ghaith took on the role of spokesman of al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but that didn't mean that he had any operational role in them or even knew they were going to happen.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In a private al Qaeda videotape that was discovered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, bin Laden is seen gesturing at Abu Ghaith and observing that his spokesman was not clued in on the 9/11 plans.

Abu Ghaith appeared in another videotape that al Qaeda publicly released a month after 9/11, sitting next to his father-in-law as bin Laden gloated about the success of the attacks.

Around the same time, Abu Ghaith also released a tape that publicly warned "Muslims in the United States and Britain ... not to travel by plane. We also advise them not to live in high-rise buildings and towers."

A year later, Abu Ghaith fulminated "Al Qaeda has the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands."

But these are the words of a blowhard, not a man of action -- something that is underlined in the indictment against Abu Ghaith that was unsealed on Thursday. It charges him with conspiring to help al Qaeda by making speeches and persuading others to join the group but makes no allegations whatsoever of involvement in any actual terror plots.

Controversy over Abu Ghaith in NYC court
Osama bin Laden's son-in-law in court
Wyden: U.S. wants tough terror approach

After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Abu Ghaith, along with much more serious players in al Qaeda such as Saif al-Adel, the military commander of the group, fled from Afghanistan to Iran, where they remained under some form of house arrest for around a decade.

Abu Ghaith's decision to leave Iran to travel to Turkey led to the chain of events that resulted in him being taken in to custody by U.S. officials in the Middle East and then transferred to New York for trial there rather than incarceration at Guantanamo, Cuba.

This is a sound decision for several reasons:

First, the Obama administration's stated goal is to close Guantanamo, not to add prisoners there.

Second, the conviction rate since 9/11 in these kinds of terrorism cases is 100% in New York courts when it comes to allegations of any kind of involvement in al Qaeda or its allied organizations.

The New America Foundation maintains a database of all the jihadist terrorism cases in the U.S. since 9/11. Of the 39 cases in New York State since 9/11, 20 defendants pleaded guilty and 15 were convicted, while four await trial.

By contrast, the military commission system in Guantanamo is largely untested. The operational commander of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was arrested in Pakistan a decade ago but still has yet to face trial in Guantanamo. It's quite possible that the process may take many more years before his trial even begins.

Indeed, of the 779 prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo, only six have been convicted according to a recently released study by the Congressional Research Service, which performs research on behalf of members of Congress.

In other words, while courts in New York have convicted alleged terrorists at a 100% rate, less than 1% have been successfully tried at Guantanamo.

In addition, the few convictions in Guantanamo have in some cases been overturned; for instance, that of Salim Hamden, who was bin Laden's driver.

In other cases, the sentences handed down have been very short compared with those in civilian trials of alleged terrorists in the U.S.

David Hicks, an Australian detainee at Guantanamo, plea bargained his way out of the camp with time served and nine months in an Australian prison.

Perhaps because of his relatively minor role in al Qaeda, the announcement that Abu Ghaith will face trial in Manhattan has not produced so far any of the "not in my backyard" response we saw when the Obama administration announced in late 2009 that it was planning to put Sheikh Mohammed on trial in Manhattan.

The political storm this unleashed forced the Obama administration to backtrack and to announce two years later that Sheik Mohammed instead would be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo.

If Abu Ghaith's case goes forward without a backlash in New York and a conviction is secured, as seems all but certain, we can be sure that he will not be the last alleged member of al Qaeda seized overseas who will be sent to the Southern District of New York to face trial -- rather than go before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay and all the uncertainties that such trials have hitherto encountered.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT