Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans after being captured in Jordan over the past week.
The case marks a legal victory for President Barack Obama’s administration, which has long sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in American federal courts instead of military tribunals at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it runs counter to demands by Republicans in Congress who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
Abu Ghaith was born in Kuwait and was bin Laden’s son-in-law. The Department of Justice said he was the spokesman for al-Qaida, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher.
The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors say, he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the “nation of Islam” to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A “great army is gathering against you,” Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Shortly afterward, Abu Ghaith warned in a speech that “the storms shall not stop — especially the airplanes storm” and advised Muslims, children and al-Qaida allies to stay out of planes and high-rise buildings. In one video, he was sitting with bin Laden in front of a rock face in Afghanistan. Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after Sept. 11.
In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. military and CIA searched for bin Laden, Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan, prosecutors said.
Abu Ghaith’s trial will mark one of the first prosecutions of senior al-Qaida leaders on U.S. soil. Charging foreign terror suspects in American federal courts was a top pledge by Obama shortly after he took office in 2009, aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open. Several GOP lawmakers on Thursday said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a court in America but could potentially yield more information to prevent future threats.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes in Washington and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.