Earlier this week, Americans learned about the arrest and extradition to the US of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaeda spokesman during the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. Abu Ghaith is also a son-in-law to the terrorist group’s late leader, Osama bin Laden. His arraignment on a series of counter-terrorism charges took place at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. The indictment charged 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).”
Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, George Venizelos lauded the arrest thus: “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.” One might think Abu Ghaith was a postmodern Joseph Goebbels or Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob.”
Venizelos accused the former al-Qaeda spokesman of using his position “to threaten the United States and incite its enemies. His apprehension is 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 hailed the arrest as “an important milestone in our ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara posited that the “law has a long arm and justice has a long memory.”
Thirteen years have passed since Abu Ghaith worked alongside Osama bin Laden in his campaign of terror, taking to the public airwaves to exhort others to join al-Qaeda’s cause, and warning the West that equally catastrophic terror attacks would follow the events of 9/11. Memories of that fateful day are branded in the psyche of the American people. To be sure, Abu Ghaith’s arrest is testament to America’s commitment to bringing enemies of the United States to justice, no matter how long it takes.
That criminals and terrorists must be pursued until captured is axiomatic among counterterrorism and defense strategists who understood that Abu Ghaith needed to be brought to justice no matter how long it took. Israel’s and the Allies’ half-century long hunt for Nazi war criminals, and international prosecution of the progenitors of genocide during and after the Cold War, in Sudan, and the Balkans, testify to the relentlessness of Justice. As a non US citizen and enemy combatant, Abu Ghaith is the typical case of an al Qaeda leader who should be sent to Guantanamo not to Manhattan, to join the other enemy combatants.
In the case of Abu Ghaith, however, the strategically minor significance of his capture is being ignored by the Administration and mainstream media. Some experts and a few lawmakers are portraying Abu Ghaith as a senior al-Qaeda leader, architect of the 9/11 attacks, and a powerful influence within the organization today. Congressman Peter King (R, NY) asserted that Abu Ghaith’s capture represents a great strategic victory for the US counterterrorism community and that al-Qaeda’s core is being devastated. According to King, his capture represents “a psychological victory for us and a psychological defeat for al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, 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 about the victory that his capture represents for the American system of justice. At some point, however, overinflating the arrest of a jihadi spokesman becomes counterproductive to US war efforts and misinforms the American people regarding actual progress we are making in the confrontation with al-Qaeda. Abu Ghaith is “small fry” in the global jihadi movement today, a toothless lion who was already out to pasture.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith is a symbolic representative of the old al-Qaeda, to be sure. His was the first face, other than Bin Laden and Zawahiri, to appear on al Jazeera following the 9/11 attacks. He is not, however, a current effective leader of 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 lower strategic significance. He was mysteriously able or enabled to flee Iran last year for Turkey where he hoped, or was led to believe, that Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party would grant him political asylum. It seems he was poorly advised, as Erdoðan refused to grant him any status that would anger Washington or the region’s Salafi jihadists. Abu Ghaith was flown to Jordan, an Arab country that would repatriate 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 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 M. Jones from Rand reported. Unfortunately, this arrest will not show that the “core al-Qaeda is being devastated” as the esteemed Representative King stated. The arrest will not “strike at the heart of al-Qaeda, because it is Bin Laden’s son-in-law,” precisely because al-Qaeda’s political psyche is not influenced by the number of defunct relatives of Bin Laden that we capture. US analysis of al-Qaeda is strategically lacking, for the jihadi hydra today is ten times larger, stronger and more efficient, and spread out much further than its predecessor was in 2001. The arrest of Abu Ghaith is comparable to that of Joseph Goebbels in 1955 or Baghdad Bob in 2003. What is the value of arresting propagandist “has-beens” who are ten years disconnected from geopolitical reality? Historical 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 be otherwise. Abu Ghaith was not charismatic by the accounts of Jihadists in the chat rooms. In fact he was perceived by the fighters as a propagandist-only. His family tie to Bin Laden, and thus being faithful, not his efficiency, may have granted 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 Gaith 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 stating “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 past propagandist may give information about the history of al Qaeda, its mood, its ideology, his own experience 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 today 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 members of Congress on Terrorism and teaches Global Jihadi Strategies in Washington DC