Earlier this week, we learned about the arrest and extradition of a former senior al-Qaeda operative, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, to our country, to stand trial on terrorism-related charges. Abu Ghaith, who was serving in the role of spokesman for the terrorist group on 9/11, also happens to be a son-in-law to its deceased leader, Osama bin Laden. His arraignment, which took place at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, charges Abu Ghaith as an “associate of Bin Laden,” with participating in “a conspiracy to kill United States nationals, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2332(b).”
George Venizelos, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, lauded the arrest in a statement saying, “Suleiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.” Venizelos continued his acclamation of Abu Ghaith’s arrest by accusing the former al-Qaeda spokesman of using his position “to threaten the United States and incite its enemies,” adding that his capture was “another important step in the campaign to limit the reach of al-Qaeda and enhance our national and international security.” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco also hailed the arrest as “an important milestone in our ongoing counterterrorism efforts,” and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, boasted that the “law has a long arm and justice has a long memory.” One might assume, on the basis of such grandiloquent rhetoric, that the modern equivalent of Joseph Goebbels or Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob” had been captured.
Abu Ghaith hasn’t worked as an executive leader for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist enterprise for thirteen years. A lot has changed since Bin Laden’s alter ego took to the airwaves “to exhort fellow Muslims join the cause,” and promise to Western listeners that more catastrophic attacks that would follow the events of 9/11. Memories of that fateful day are permanently etched in the psyche of the American people. Abu Ghaith’s arrest testifies to United States resolve in pursuing and apprehending its enemies, no matter how long it takes. That criminals and terrorists must be brought to justice is axiomatic among counterterrorism and defense strategists whose attitude toward Abu Ghaith was no different.
The half-century hunt for Nazi war criminals by Israel and the Allies, and international prosecution of the progenitors of genocide during and after the Cold War, in Sudan, and the Balkans, all testify to the relentless nature of Justice. Furthermore, as a foreign enemy combatant, Abu Ghaith is a typical al Qaeda leader who ought to be confined, not in a Manhattan jail to await trial in a civilian court, but at the detainment and interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay, until he is tried by a military tribunal.
The minor strategic significance of Abu Ghaith’s capture is being ignored by the Administration and mainstream media. Not to be outdone, some experts and a few lawmakers are reinforcing Abu Ghaith portrayal as a senior al-Qaeda leader, an architect of the 9/11 attacks, who remains a “mover and shaker” in the organization today. Congressman Peter King (R, NY) has stated that Abu Ghaith’s capture is a momentous strategic victory for the US counterterrorism community that is devastating to the core of al-Qaeda. According to the esteemed lawaker, the capture represents “a psychological victory for us and a psychological defeat for al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation added that “the capture of Mr. Abu Ghaith is significant because it takes a key player out of the game and will provide a window into a shadowy component of al-Qaeda, the management council in Iran.”
Notwithstanding the tidal wave of opinion lionizing Abu Ghaith’s capture, I would like to propose a different reality. There is no disagreement regarding his capture being a victory for the American system of justice. At some point, however, overinflating the arrest of a former jihadi spokesman becomes counterproductive to US counterterrorism efforts and misinforms the American people regarding the actual progress we are making against al-Qaeda. Abu Ghaith is “small fish” in today’s oceanic jihadi movement. He’s a toothless lion who had already been put out to pasture.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith symbolizes the old al-Qaeda, to be sure. His was the first face, other than Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s, to appear on al Jazeera following the 9/11 attacks. He is not, however, currently a leader in al-Qaeda. After fleeing to Iran, he spent a decade under house arrest. During his forced exile, Abu Ghaith advised Iranian intelligence officials on al-Qaeda and Salafi affairs. His limited contacts with his comrades were made under Iranian surveillance and were of minimal strategic significance. Mysteriously, he was able or enabled to flee Iran for Turkey last year, where he had hoped, or at least was led to believe, that the Islamist Justice and Development Party would grant him political asylum. It seems he was poorly advised, because Erdoðan refused to grant him any status that might offend Washington or the region’s Salafi jihadists. Abu Ghaith was flown to Jordan, the Arab country that repatriated him to New York City.
Propagandists within Terrorist organizations are components of “killing machines” as they incite directly for violence, and as such are prosecutable. But Abu Ghaith may not have even been one of the executive planners of the 9/11 operation, as Osama bin Laden declared in a video that aired on ABC in 2002. More importantly, he is not a “key player” in today’s al-Qaeda as Mr. Jones from Rand reported. Unfortunately, this arrest will not show the core of al-Qaeda to be devastated as our friend, Representative King stated. It will not “strike at the heart of al-Qaeda” because Abu Ghaith is Bin Laden’s son-in-law, because al-Qaeda’s political psyche is not influenced by the number of defunct relatives of Bin Laden the US captures. US strategic analysis on al-Qaeda is lacking, for the jihadi hydra of today is ten times larger, stronger, efficient, and spread out than its predecessor was in 2001. The arrest of Abu Ghaith could be comparable to that of a Joseph Goebbels in 1955 or a Baghdad Bob in 2014. What value is there in arresting propagandist “has-beens” who have been disconnected from geopolitical reality for ten years? Historic and justice value notwithstanding, Abu Ghaith’s arrest is of very little strategic value. Tom Lynch, a senior research fellow at National Defense University who served under prominent US military leaders told the Associated Press that “Abu Ghaith’s charisma and impassioned rhetoric, which helped al-Qaida recruit followers and raise money, made him a natural choice as bin Laden’s spokesman and key adviser.” Historical reality may prove otherwise. Abu Ghaith was not charismatic by jihadist chat room accounts. In fact he was perceived by the fighters as a propagandist-only. His familial tie and faithfulness to Bin Laden, not his efficiency, may have won him the spokesperson position.
Lynch added that “Abu Ghaith would have all but certainly been included in discussions about the 9/11 attack before it was launched – even if he was not directly involved in the plot.” In fact the unauthorized wedding videotape which aired in 2002 showed Bin Laden expressly saying that “even Abu Ghaith didn’t know much about the details of the operations.” Drawing a more realistic assessment of Abu Ghaith in the specific 9/11 operation the AP writers quoted unnamed officials saying “we’re not alleging that he was a planner, but a player within the group.” AP added “Believed to be more of a strategic player in bin Laden’s inner circle than an operational plotter, Abu Ghaith would be the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to stand trial on U.S. soil since 9/11.” According to intelligence officials “he may be able to shed new light on al-Qaida’s inner workings – concerning al-Qaida’s murky dealings in Iran over the past decade, for example – but probably will have few details about specific or imminent ongoing threats.” In short, the former propagandist may provide information about the history of al Qaeda, its mood, its ideology, his own experiences in Iran—not necessarily Iran’s global strategy regarding al Qaeda—and some details about the veterans of the organization.
I have great doubts about Abu Ghaith’s connectivity to present al-Qaeda. Having followed the tactics and political culture of the Jihadi movement for decades, I would suggest that a senior official of the organization, if still a player, would not have surrendered to the Turks. He would have sufficient connections within the jihadi web to flee Iran and join the commanders in Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Syria or Libya. He would have tried Sudan. A strategic victory against al-Qaeda would be the capture of the publishers of “Inspire Magazine” the global mobilizer and recruiter for al-Qaeda today, or the arrest of senior commanders of sleeper cells in the West like Anwar al Awlaki.
The capture of an obsolete propagandist is a positive development, but the jihadist propagandists of 2013 who are on the loose, are operating on a strategic, macro scale, compared to the jihadists of 2001 like Abu Ghaith.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America. He advises Congress on Terrorism and teaches Global Jihadi Strategies in Washington DC.
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