Abu Anas al-Liby, the Libyan man and suspected al-Qaeda leader accused of aiding the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, appeared in a New York federal court for the first time yesterday. Al-Liby pleaded not guilty to charges linking him to the bombings, as well as charges that allege that he plotted with Osama bin Laden to attack American troops across the Middle East. Reports from inside the court stated that al-Liby appeared weak and in poor health, most likely due to his decision to stop eating while aboard a U.S. ship as well as an ongoing bout with hepatitis. Al-Liby was captured earlier this month after he was found by American special forces in Tripoli.
We’ve already posted about the government’s decision to transfer al-Liby to the United States for trial, but we have yet to discuss what it will actually mean as the case proceeds. It’s no secret that the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay have been controversial since their inception. Proceedings at Guantanamo have been stalled by everything from IT issues to attendance problems with the detainees. Critics of the commissions have long argued that transferring terrorist suspects to American soil for trials in federal courts would eliminate these issues.
Some of those same critics are already saying that al-Liby’s transfer and impending trial is a sign that President Obama is finally changing the government’s policy to address these concerns. If that’s true, it’ll be a welcome change for most. Families of the victims of 9/11 have already suffered through months of pretrial hearings in the KSM case, and are still waiting for a trial date to be set. Meanwhile, well over 100 people have been convicted on terrorism charges in federal courts since 2009. We’re likely to see that number grow when the al-Liby trial comes to a conclusion.
It helps that politicians appear to be on Obama’s side. It wasn’t long ago that both parties strongly objected to Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that KSM was going to be tried in a New York federal court. More recently, Republicans have consistently opposed attempts to change the government’s policy on detainee transfers from Guantanamo Bay. Some were concerned that holding terrorist suspects in the U.S. would make us an even bigger target for future attacks, while others claimed that the suspects simply didn’t deserve the rights afforded to them in federal courts. These same concerns should apply to al-Liby, given his alleged close links to al-Qaeda. However, his swift and efficient transfer to the U.S. might show that both parties are becoming more open to the idea of government transparency as he makes his way through the federal court system. I don’t expect our policy to change in regard to Guantanamo detainees, but this is a sign that the United States is beginning to change the way it addresses high-profile terrorism cases.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research