Sulaiman Abu Ghayth pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to kill Americans Friday in a brief appearance in a New York federal courtroom, but the mere presence of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law in the USA - a short distance from where the World Trade Center towers once stood - has revived an emotional debate over whether terror suspects should be tried in civilian court.
Republican lawmakers seized on the Justice Department's decision to bring the strident al-Qaeda spokesman to New York, saying he belonged in military custody at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
"We are disturbed by the administration's decision to bring ... a foreign member of al-Qaeda charged with conspiring to kill Americans - to New York for trial in federal court," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a joint statement.
"The Obama administration's lack of a wartime detention policy for foreign members of al-Qaeda, as well as its refusal to detain and interrogate these individuals at Guantanamo, makes our nation less safe," the lawmakers said. "We are at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and America's detention policy must reflect that reality."
Ghayth, who appeared in videos and issued proclamations immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, warning that the assaults would continue, represents the highest ranking operative set to face civilian trial in the USA since the administration abandoned a similar plan to prosecute 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2010.
At that time, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly raised questions about the costs of securing such a trial, while some Sept. 11 victims' relatives suggested the prosecution would be too painful to bear and could encourage new attacks.
"While New York City must remain vigilant to continued terrorists threats against it, Abu Ghayth's apprehension and prosecution promises to close another chapter in al-Qaeda's notoriously violent history of killing Americans," Kelly said in a written statement after the charges against Ghayth were unsealed.
Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY