New York-- The son-in-law of Osama bin Laden has pleaded not guilty to plotting against Americans in his role as al Qaeda spokesman.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea Friday to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in federal court in New York.
U.S. prosecutor John P. Cronan said Friday in federal court in New York that Abu Ghaith made an "extensive post-arrest statement" that totaled 22 pages. Cronan gave no details about what Abu Ghaith said.
A short, balding man with a gray beard, Abu Ghaith was led with his hands cuffed behind his back into U.S. District Court in New York for the arraignment proceedings, which were held amidst tight security. Bomb-sniffing dogs were used to sweep the courtroom before the spectators (including more than a hundred media, law enforcement and court personnel) were allowed in.
He nodded yes when asked, through an interpreter, if he understood his rights. He shook his head no when asked whether he had money to hire an attorney.
Defense attorney Philip Weinstein said lawyers met with their client "several times before this proceeding."
Bail was not requested at the hearing and none was set. Judge Lewis Kaplan said he will set a trial date at the next conference in the case, which is scheduled for April 8. Prosecutors say a trial is expected to last about three weeks.
The Justice Department said Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al Qaeda, working alongside bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher and urged followers to swear allegiance to bin Laden, prosecutors said.
The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors say he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on the "nation of Islam" to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A "great army is gathering against you," Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Kuwait stripped him of his citizenship after the 2001 attacks. In 2002, under pressure as the U.S. military and CIA searched for bin Laden, prosecutors said Abu Ghaith was smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan.
Authorities say Abu Ghaith was captured in Jordan over the last week. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the capture of Abu Ghaith on Thursday, saying "no amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America's enemies to justice."
President Obama's administration has sought to charge senior al Qaeda suspects in U.S. courts instead of military tribunals, but Republicans in Congress don't want high-threat terror suspects brought into the country. Charging foreign terror suspects in federal courts was a top pledge by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009 - aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans, however, have fought the White House to keep Guantanamo open, and bringing Abu Ghaith to New York led to an outcry. Republicans in Congress do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States, fearing that outcomes in a civilian jury trial are too unpredictable, compared to a military trial.
Holder reluctantly agreed in 2011 to try self-professed al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Guantanamo Bay military court instead of a civilian court after a fierce Republican backlash.
Several Republican lawmakers said Abu Ghaith should be considered an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo, where he could be questioned more thoroughly than his lawyers likely would allow as a federal defendant on U.S. soil.
Generally, Guantanamo detainees have fewer legal rights and due process than they would have in a court in America but could potentially yield more information to prevent future threats.
The reasons Abu Ghaith is in New York are both legal and practical, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, a former FBI assistant director, reported on "CBS This Morning" Friday.
"'Why isn't he an enemy combatant? There's a couple of practical legal reasons, which is the military law on conspiracies toward material support versus being an actual combatant are vague," he said. "But then there's a very practical sense: Everybody who has been put through the federal court system, you know, you get indicted, there's about a year, you're tried and then you're in jail. In Gitmo, they're still in hearings after years and years of trying how to get to a trial. That's a system that moves slowly, [and] not terribly efficiently."
Since 2001, 67 foreign terror suspects have been convicted in U.S. federal courts, according to watchdog group Human Rights First, which obtained the data from the Justice Department through a Freedom of Information Act request.
By comparison, of the thousands of detainees who were swept up shortly after the terror attacks and held at Guantanamo Bay, only seven were convicted by military tribunals held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, the watchdog group said. The vast majority have been sent back overseas, either for rehabilitation or continued detention and prosecution.