WASHINGTON — Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be brought to trial in a civilian federal courthouse in New York, blocks from site of the devastating 2001 terror attacks. Prosecutors expect to seek the death penalty.
At a news conference Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder also announced that five other suspects, including a major suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, will be tried before a military commission.
Holder said the defendants should be tried where their crimes occurred. The New York courthouse is hard by the site where the World Trade Centers were brought down by two hijacked jetliners. Nearly 3,000 people died there and in another hijacked jet that hit the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked plane crashed in western Pennsylvania.
Holder called the events of Sept. 11 "the deadliest terrorist attacks our nation has ever seen" and said that in the years since, "our nation has had no higher priority than bringing those who planned and plotted the attacks to justice."
Bringing such notorious suspects to U.S. soil to face trial is a key step in President Barack Obama's plan to close the terror suspect detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama initially planned to close the detention center by Jan. 22, but the administration is no longer expected to meet that deadline.
"For over 200 years our nation has relied upon a faithful adherence to the rule of law," Holder told a news conference at the Justice Department. "Once again, we will ask our legal system in two venues to answer that call."
The plan that Holder outlined Friday is a major legal and political test of Obama's overall approach to terrorism. If the case suffers legal setbacks, the administration will face second-guessing from those who never wanted it in a civilian courtroom. And if lawmakers get upset about terrorists being brought to their home regions, they may fight back against other parts of Obama's agenda.
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona called bringing Mohammed to New York "an unnecessary risk" that could result in the disclosure of classified information. Kyl maintained the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "blind sheik" who was tried for a plot against some two-dozen New York City landmarks, caused "valuable information about U.S. intelligence sources and methods" to be revealed to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the federal courts are capable of trying high-profile terrorism.
"By trying them in our federal courts, we demonstrate to the world that the most powerful nation on earth also trusts its judicial system a system respected around the world," Leahy said.
The decision outraged family members of some Sept. 11 victims.
"We have a president who doesn't know we're at war," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles Burlingame, was pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She said she was sickened by "the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys," if the trial winds up focusing on allegations that the suspects were tortured after their capture.
"I don't think these people should get the benefit of being subjected to our system of jurisprudence," said Bruce De Cell, whose son-in-law, Mark Petrocelli, was killed at the World Trade Center. "They are terrorists. I don't think they should be tried in a civilian court."
The New York case may force the court system to confront a host of difficult legal issues surrounding counterterrorism programs begun after the 2001 attacks, including the harsh interrogation techniques once used on some of the suspects while in CIA custody. The most severe method -- waterboarding, or simulated drowning -- was used on Mohammed 183 times in 2003, before the practice was banned.
The five suspects are headed to New York together because they are all accused of conspiring in the 2001 attacks. The five headed to military commissions face a variety of charges but many of them include attacks specifically against the U.S. military.
It was unclear where commission-bound detainees like al-Nashiri might be sent, but a brig in South Carolina has been high on the list of sites under consideration.
The actual transfer of the detainees from Guantanamo to New York isn't expected to happen for many more weeks because formal charges have not been filed against most of them.
The attorney general has decided the case of the five Sept. 11 suspects should be handled by prosecutors working in the Southern District of New York, which has held a number of major terrorism trials in recent decades at the courthouse in lower Manhattan.
Holder had been considering other possible trial locations, including Virginia, Washington, D.C., and a different courthouse in New York City. Those districts could end up conducting trials of other Guantanamo detainees sent to federal court later on.
The attorney general's decision in these cases comes just before a Monday deadline for the government to decide how to proceed against 10 detainees facing military commissions.
In the military system, the five Sept. 11 suspects had faced the death penalty, but the official would not say if the Justice Department would also seek capital punishment against the men once they are in the federal system.
The administration has already sent one Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, to New York to face trial, but chose not to seek death because other conspirators involved in his case did not face capital punishment for similar offenses.
At the last major trial of al-Qaida suspects held at that courthouse in 2001, prosecutors did seek death for some of the defendants.
Mohammed already has an outstanding terror indictment against him in New York, for an unsuccessful plot called "Bojinka" to simultaneously take down multiple airliners over the Pacific Ocean in the 1990s.
Some members of Congress have fought any effort to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the United States; they have argued it would be too dangerous for nearby civilians. The Obama administration has defended the planned trials and pointed out that many terrorists have been safely tried, convicted, and imprisoned in the United States, including the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef.
Mohammed and the four others -- Waleed bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali -- are accused of orchestrating the attacks that killed over 2,970 people on Sept. 11.
Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, the military lawyer appointed to represent Ramzi Binalshibh, said Sept. 11 attorneys had not been notified of the administration's decision but welcomed the apparent move to civilian court.
The four other detainees headed to military commissions in the United States are: Omar Khadr, Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi, Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, and Noor Uthman Muhammed. Their cases are not specifically connected but two of them are accused of plotting against or attacking U.S. military personnel.
Barry Coburn, a lawyer for Khadr, said he was deeply disappointed in the decision.
"The fact that the Department of Justice has not seen fit to make these fundamental protections available to Omar Khadr, who was fifteen years old when he was detained in Afghanistan as a child soldier and has been locked away in Guantanamo ever since, is, quite frankly, devastating and shocking to me personally. I had thought this administration was better than that."