WASHINGTON — Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the charismatic al-Qaida spokesman, fundraiser and son-in-law to Osama bin Laden, is likely to have a vast trove of knowledge about the terror network’s central command but not much useful information about current threats or plots, intelligence officials and other experts say.
Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty Friday to conspiring to kill Americans in connection with propaganda videos that warned of further assaults against the United States as devastating as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
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. Intelligence officials say he probably can provide clarifying information — concerning al-Qaida’s murky dealings in Iran over the past decade, for example — but will have few details about ongoing threats.
He gave U.S. officials a 22-page statement after his Feb. 28 arrest in Jordan, according to prosecutors. They would not describe the statement.
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Bearded and balding, Abu Ghaith said little during the 15-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in New York — in Lower Manhattan just blocks from Ground Zero — and displayed none of the finger-wagging or strident orations that marked his propaganda in the days and months after 9/11.
Judge Lewis Kaplan promised to set a trial date when the case returns to court on April 8. Bail was not requested, and none was set. Abu Ghaith’s lawyer declined to comment after the hearing.
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, said Tom Lynch, a senior research fellow at National Defense University. He said 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.
“He was on Osama bin Laden’s right-hand side, and was used by him as a mouthpiece for the organization,” said attorney Michael Rosensaft, who prosecuted terrorism cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan until late 2012 and is now in private practice.