Sulaiman Abu Gaith, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri, from an al Qaeda propaganda tape. Image from BBC/AP.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former spokesman for Osama bin Laden, was arrested in Jordan and is currently being held in New York City. Abu Ghaith was initially detained in Turkey, according to Reuters, and then deported to Jordan, where the FBI and Jordanian authorities took him into custody.
The US Department of Justice has indicted Abu Gaith for conspiracy to “murder United States nationals anywhere in the world.”
Abu Ghaith, who is bin Laden’s son-in-law, fled Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and sheltered inside Iran for the better part of a decade afterwards. The Iranians held him under a loose form of house arrest.
The Kuwaiti press first reported that Abu Ghaith had been freed from Iranian custody and traveled to Afghanistan in 2010. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman freed by Iran.] According to press accounts at the time, he was one of several al Qaeda leaders who was released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was kidnapped by al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan.
The details of this trade are not entirely clear.
It is known that the Iranians would not outright free some senior al Qaeda leaders from their custody, even while allowing others to operate a facilitation network. So, al Qaeda decided to force their hand by kidnapping and beating an Iranian operative doubling as a diplomat in Pakistan.
That deal was first reported by slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who wrote about the exchange for the Asia Times and in his book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Shahzad, who was killed under mysterious circumstances in Pakistan, reported that the hostage exchange led to al Qaeda’s “broadening [of] ties with Iran.” Al Qaeda, according to Shahzad, also received more sophisticated weaponry from Iran as part of the deal.
According to some accounts, Abu Ghaith operated inside Iran since his relocation there after the Sept. 11 attacks, including in more recent times. He was first captured after leaving Iran for Turkey earlier this year.
In 2002, Abu Ghaith openly threatened additional mass casualty attacks on the US. “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,” Abu Ghaith said in an online statement.
In his autobiography At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former CIA director George Tenet explains that the US 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.”
The CIA and FBI investigated numerous leads, but no such plot was uncovered.
Ties to Faylaka Island attack
According to declassified and leaked Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) documents, Abu Ghaith was tied to the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for a more conventional attack against American forces. On Oct. 8, 2002, an al Qaeda cell opened fire on US Marines conducting training exercises on the Faylaka Island off of Kuwait. One US Marine was killed and another seriously wounded.
The attack was carried out by al Qaeda trainees with direct ties to Abu Ghaith.
The leader of the Faylaka Island cell was a Kuwaiti named Anas al Kandari, who was killed during the shootout with the Marines. JTF-GTMO’s files indicate that Anas al Kandari attended advanced sniper training at one of bin Laden’s facilities in Afghanistan prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Ghaith, Fayiz al Kandari (Anas al Kandari’s cousin) and some of bin Laden’s sons were also allegedly part of the same training class.
In his book, The Martyr’s Oath, Stewart Bell details how Abu Ghaith recruited and indoctrinated Anas al Kandari, as well as other al Qaeda recruits, in Kuwait. Fayiz al Kandari is a current detainee at Guantanamo and had his own ties to Abu Ghaith and bin Laden, according to the JTF-GTMO files.
Abu Ghaith’s role in recruiting young Kuwaitis for al Qaeda eventually led authorities to strip him of his citizenship.