Slightly built with a wispy goatee, occasionally smiling as he spoke to his lawyer, the Guantanamo detainee didn't seem very threatening.
Yet federal prosecutors say the man in the blue prison smock helped kill hundreds in al-Qaida attacks, including a dozen Americans. Republican critics of the Obama administration's trial plans say his very presence on U.S. soil recklessly endangers citizens.
In court on Tuesday, Ahmed Ghailani said only that he was not guilty — and that he did not need to have read aloud what U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska called "this big, fat indictment" against him.
The brief but historic federal court hearing transported Ghailani from open-ended military detention at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to the civilian U.S. criminal justice system, underscoring the administration's determination to close the Cuban prison and hold trials here.
President Barack Obama has said keeping Ghailani from coming to the United States "would prevent his trial and conviction" for terrible crimes. Taking a drastically different stance, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio labeled Tuesday's move "the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America."
Ghailani, accused of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, was brought to New York to await trial in connection with al-Qaida bombings that killed 224 people — including 12 Americans — at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
Madoff among prisonmates
U.S. marshals took custody of Ghailani from his military jailers and transferred him to a federal lockup in lower Manhattan that currently holds financial swindler Bernard Madoff, and once held mob scion John "Junior" Gotti and blind terror leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.
Ghailani walked into the courtroom without shackles or handcuffs. He listened at times to a Swahili interpreter but then removed the headphones and appeared to understand what was said in English.
About 10 deputy marshals were in the courtroom, including two who were behind him.
"We are ready to proceed in the case," declared Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin, who said there was "voluminous" evidence to be shared among attorneys.
Ghailani's attorney, Scott L. Fenstermaker, declined comment after the hearing.
Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, one of the lawyers who had been representing Ghailani in military custody and attended Tuesday's hearing, said: "We hope he gets his day in court. We hope he gets a fair trial."
Ghailani's trial will be an important test case for Obama's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo in seven months and bring some of the terror suspects there to trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system, and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case."
Though the bombings were a decade ago, "for us, it's like yesterday," said Sue Bartley, a Washington-area resident who lost her husband, Julian Leotis Bartley Sr., then U.S. consul general to Kenya, and her son, Julian "Jay" Bartley Jr.
"The embassy bombings were a precursor to 9/11. And even though we know that an American embassy located in any country is American soil, I don't think people really understand that," she said.
The U.S. response to the 2001 terror attacks — including the opening of the Guantanamo detention center — could also complicate Ghailani's case, as defense lawyers are likely to mount legal challenges based on the circumstances of his capture, detention and treatment over the years.
Justice Department officials would not say Tuesday what would be done with Ghailani if he were acquitted, but in past cases a non-citizen defendant would be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.
There will also be political challenges to Ghailani's trial.
Congressional Republicans have repeatedly contended that transferring terrorist suspects to U.S. soil will threaten public safety. The Guantanamo issue has seemed one of the few issues falling the Republicans' way, as polls suggest that most Americans want to keep the Cuba-based prison operating.
But if Ghailani can be handled without serious incident in New York and elsewhere, the GOP argument may lose steam and Congress may rethink its refusal to fund the closing of Guantanamo. The move also could bolster Obama's efforts to persuade other nations to accept some detainees from the prison.
U.S. officials contend Ghailani began a terrorist career on a bicycle delivering bomb parts and rose through the al-Qaida ranks to become an aide to bin Laden.
After the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Ghailani worked his way up the al-Qaida ranks, according to military prosecutors.
He was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, and he was transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba two years later.
Ghailani has denied knowing that the TNT and oxygen tanks he delivered would be used to make a bomb. He also has denied buying a vehicle used in one of the attacks, saying he could not drive.
Not only Republican lawmakers have opposed bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial, even in heavily guarded settings. Obama faces pressure from across the political spectrum over his plan to close the detention center. Democrats have said they want to see Obama's plan for closing the base before approving money to finance it, and Republicans are fighting to keep Guantanamo open.
The decision to try Ghailani in New York also revives a long-dormant case charging bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leadership with plotting the embassy attacks, which led then-President Bill Clinton to launch cruise missile attacks two weeks later on bin Laden's Afghan camps.
Four other men have been tried and convicted in the New York courthouse for their roles in the embassy attacks. All were sentenced to life in prison.