Last week, the U.S. government announced that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s Kuwaiti-born spokesman and son-in-law, had been arrested in Jordan and is awaiting trial in New York City. The Obama administration’s decision to place Abu Ghaith in the criminal justice system reignited a longstanding debate about the best way to deal with senior al Qaeda leaders. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham had this reaction: “The Congress has tried to tell the administration that when it comes to people like this we want them to go to Gitmo to be held for interrogation purposes.”
Here is one question interrogators would almost certainly need substantial time to explore: What does Abu Ghaith know about al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran?
Beginning in 2002, and for much of the post-9/11 period, Abu Ghaith lived in Iran. He operated freely for part of that time. The Iranians placed Abu Ghaith under a loose form of house arrest in 2003. But they reportedly eased their grip on him sometime in 2010. After leaving Iran, Abu Ghaith was detained in Turkey earlier this year—before being picked up by the FBI in Jordan.
As a trusted member of bin Laden’s inner circle who had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghaith recruited Kuwaitis for training in al Qaeda’s Afghan camps. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he served as bin Laden’s chief apologist and propagandist. In late 2001, he threatened America while sitting alongside bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri in al Qaeda videos.
But with the American-led manhunt under way, he and other senior al Qaeda operatives soon sought refuge with Afghanistan’s western neighbor. The Obama administration’s indictment reads: “During 2002, Abu Ghaith arranged to be, and was, smuggled successfully from Afghanistan into Iran.” The indictment is limited to Abu Ghaith’s involvement in al Qaeda activities in 2001 and 2002. We do not know exactly when in 2002 he relocated to Iran. But a great deal of his work was almost certainly done from the mullahs’ refuge.
In June 2002, Abu Ghaith published a statement online saying that “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.” In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former CIA director George Tenet says that an alarmed U.S. government “had to consider the possibility that Abu Ghaith was attempting to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction that might greatly exceed the death toll of 9/11.”
Fortunately, no such attack took place. But in an audio recording released that same June, Abu Ghaith claimed credit on behalf of al Qaeda for the April 11, 2002, truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue. NBC News and the Associated Press reported that the cell responsible for the bombing had been in touch with al Qaeda leaders inside Iran.
In July 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened more bloodshed. “Al Qaeda will organize more attacks inside American territory and outside, at the moment we choose, at the place we choose and with the objectives that we want,” he said, according to an account published at the time by the Associated Press.
In October 2002, an al Qaeda cell recruited and indoctrinated by Abu Ghaith opened fire on U.S. Marines stationed on Kuwait’s Faylaka Island. One Marine was killed and another was seriously wounded. Was bin -Laden’s man in contact with the cell beforehand? We don’t know.
Then, in November 2002, al Qaeda terrorists attacked an Israeli hotel, killing 13 people, and tried to down an Israeli jetliner in Mombasa, Kenya. Abu Ghaith claimed credit for that operation on behalf of al Qaeda the following month. Al Qaeda has strict protocols for claiming responsibility for its attacks. That Abu Ghaith trumpeted the organization’s culpability in Tunisia and Kenya strongly suggests he was coordinating with al Qaeda’s most senior leaders at the time.
Also in December 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened additional attacks against the United States and Israel. And bin Laden’s spokesman warned the Muslim world of the “danger of what America and its allies are preparing against Iraq and its people,” which “is not limited to overthrowing the infidel regime and its dictator but is aimed at . . . Balkanizing this great country.”
At some point in 2003, after repeated complaints from the United States and its allies, the Iranians placed Abu Ghaith and other senior al Qaeda operatives under house arrest. Abu Ghaith was mostly quiet in the years that followed, and we cannot be sure what he was up to.
But according to the Obama administration, al Qaeda has operated a facilitation network inside Iran since at least 2005 under an “agreement” with the Iranian regime. Today, that network is led by one of Abu Ghaith’s fellow Kuwaitis, a notorious al Qaeda operative named Muhsin al Fadhli. Was Abu Ghaith involved in al Fadhli’s network? It is a reasonable question given the two have reportedly known one another since before the 9/11 attacks.
In the weeks to come, we may learn more about Abu Ghaith’s arrest and questioning. But the types of interrogations required to unpack Iran’s complex relationship with al Qaeda could take months. Has Abu Ghaith been forthcoming about these ties during his short time in custody?
The Obama administration has long wanted to showcase its ability to put terrorists on trial in the U.S. criminal justice system. It would be a travesty if, as a consequence, the administration squandered an opportunity to gain an invaluable window into the alliance between the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and America’s principal terrorist enemy.