Why Even Without KSM, New York Is Ground Zero in the Legal War on Terror

Al-Libi is just the latest terror leader to face trial in New York.

October 7, 2013, 8:59 PM
PHOTO: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
A view of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Nov. 17, 2009. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seen March 31, 2003.
Chip East/Reuters|

Oct. 8, 2013— -- Silence. That's been the reaction to news that alleged al Qaeda kingpin Abu Anas al-Libi was on his way to New York to stand trial.

And it's quite a different story than four years ago when, after President Obama said he would transfer 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the Big Apple for his own trial, everyone from local business people to Mayor Mike Bloomberg had a public fit.

News this weekend that al-Libi -- accused of plotting the twin 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa -- would eventually land in Manhattan was notable for the utter lack of controversy it has generated.

It's also a reminder that in the legal war on terror, Ground Zero is not the prison camps and military courtrooms of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The battle -- with lawyers, judges and witness -- is being waged in the stately courtrooms of Manhattan and Brooklyn, an easy walk to the real "Ground Zero," the World Trade Center, where al Qaeda first struck on 9/11 in New York City.

With little attention and few headlines, the U.S. government has made New York the focal point of its efforts to investigate terrorism, detaining and trying high-value targets in the maze of federal facilities that dot the nation's largest city.

It's not a new phenomenon. For 20 years, the FBI and federal prosecutors in the Big Apple have led the charge against international terrorism.

That's why it was a squad of FBI agents from New York who were dispatched last month to Kenya to probe the al Shabab attack on the Westgate mall. And it's why a grand jury in New York is the one that indicted al Qaeda leader al-Libi for his role in bombing the buildings in Kenya and Tanzania 15 years ago.

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"When we started doing al Qaeda cases we needed to give it to an FBI field office and the New York field office was the first one to have a real counterterrorism squad because they investigated the first World Trade Center bombing," said ABC News consultant Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterror czar.

After the 1993 WTC bombing, a foreshadowing event that killed six, feds in New York were assigned a host of international terror cases. They went after those behind the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, and they charged fundamentalist Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri with inspiring attacks against Westerners.

It was the New York FBI office that dispatched agents to work in concert with the CIA's "Alec Station," dedicated to hunting Osama bin Laden before 9/11.

And early this year, the feds brought bin Laden's nephew, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, to Manhattan, where he now faces terror charges that could see him imprisoned for life.

Much of the expertise was developed by the feds during the embassy bombing investigation that focused on al-Libi and his henchmen.

Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration moved away from holding terror trials in New York in favor of the then-new facility at the naval base made famous by the movie "A Few Good Men," at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Geroge W. Bush and his War Cabinet believed that Gitmo -- as it's known -- would provide a better spot for terror prisons and trials that would not have to comport with strict constitutional standards in place on the U.S. mainland.

Hundreds of people picked up by U.S. forces in the global War on Terror were then brought to Cuba with the idea they would face trial by military commission down the road.

The most notorious among Gitmo's prisoners is Mohammed, the Pakistani operations planner who thought up the 9/11 attacks and orchestrated them at bin Laden's behest. Mohammed's military-commission case has started, stopped, restarted and is now slowly proceeding through pretrial motions, though some observers question whether a trial will ever be held.

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Obama campaigned on a promise to close Gitmo and pledged to transfer KSM to New York for trial in Lower Manhattan. But the president was forced to cave on that vow in the face of political pressure.

That hasn't, however, kept Obama from returning to the practice of using New York's courts and federal facilities for terror cases. On Monday, officials said there is no chance that al-Libi would be sent to Gitmo.

"The federal court system has proved it is unparalleled in getting intelligence in terror cases and in getting convictions in terror cases," said Matt Miller, who was Attorney General Eric Holder's top spokesman for much of the first Obama term. "In New York, they know how to do everything from security to interrogations to conviction. They have a proven track record and it all goes back to the first World Trade Center attack."

Since his capture over the weekend, officials have declined to discuss al-Libi's precise whereabouts but they have made it clear that when interrogation by a special unit is done, he's on his way to New York.There, he will be housed in the infamous "Terror Wing" at Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center.

According to those who have visited both that facility and the prison camps where KSM is held in Cuba, MCC is viewed as far worse.

"Anybody who's visited the highest-security camp at Gitmo versus the highest-security area of the federal facility would choose Gitmo every day of the week, 100 percent," said one longtime Justice Department official, who declined to be identified discussing details of terrorism prosecutions. "There are restrictions on movement, restrictions on communication."

Those who have visited the "Terror Wing" describe a facility of 8-by-12 cells, where prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing are locked up 22 hours a day. It has been compared in news accounts to the fictional prison in "The Count of Monte Cristo."

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