Yielding to political opposition, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen will be referred to military commissions for trial rather than to a civilian federal court in New York.
The families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks have waited almost a decade for justice, and "it must not be delayed any longer," Holder told a news conference.
Holder had announced the earlier plan for trial in New York City in November 2009, but that foundered amid widespread opposition to a civilian court trial from Republicans and even some Democrats, particularly in New York. Congress passed legislation that prohibits bringing any detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
Monday, the attorney general called the congressional restrictions unwise and unwarranted and said a legislative body cannot make prosecutorial decisions.
Most Republicans applauded the turnabout, but Holder said he is still convinced that his earlier decision was the right one. The Justice Department had been prepared to bring "a powerful case" in civilian court, he said.
In New York on Monday, the government unsealed and got a judge to dismiss an indictment in the case that charged Mohammed and the others with 10 counts relating to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The dismissal was because the defendants will not be tried in civilian court.
The indictment said that in late August 2001, as the terrorists in the United States made final preparations, Mohammed was notified about the date of the attack and relayed that to Osama bin Laden.
Some 9/11 family members supported the switch to military commissions.
"We're delighted," said Alexander Santora, 74, father of deceased firefighter Christopher A. Santora. The father called the accused terrorists "demonic human beings, they've already said that they would kill us if they could, if they got the chance they would do it again."
Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother George Cain died at the World Trade Center, said that the five men are "war criminals as far as I'm concerned and I think that a military trial is the right thing to do."
However, a top Democrat, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he is disappointed with the decision not to prosecute in federal court. "I believe that our justice system, which is the envy of the world, is more than capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases," said Leahy.
Republican lawmakers welcomed the shift.
"It's unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he's a war criminal," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Sessions of Alabama said he was "pleased that the Obama administration has finally heeded those who rebuked their decision and that the trial is being held where it belongs."
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the administration's decision.
Cases prosecuted in military commissions now "are sure to be subject to continuous legal challenges and delays, and their outcomes will not be seen as legitimate. That is not justice," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.
Holder said it is unclear whether the five men could receive the death penalty if they plead guilty in military court.
The political fight over where to try the alleged 9/11 plotters is part of a bigger battle in which Republicans want no detainees from Guantanamo Bay brought into the United States.
In a letter sent Monday, Holder assured Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that the administration has no intention of moving Guantanamo Bay detainees into a shuttered Illinois prison. Originally, the administration intended for Gitmo detainees to be housed there as part of a plan to close Guantanamo Bay. Despite Congress' restrictions on transferring detainees from Guantanamo, the administration still formally supports closing the military prison there.
During a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay in 2007, Mohammed confessed to planning the Sept. 11 attacks and a chilling string of other terror plots.
Many of the schemes, including a previously undisclosed plan to kill several former U.S. presidents, were never carried out or were foiled by international counterterror authorities.
Mohammed made clear that al-Qaida wanted to down a second trans-Atlantic aircraft during would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid's failed operation later in 2001.
The other four alleged co-conspirators are:
- Waleed bin Attash, a Yemeni who allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan;
- Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who allegedly helped find flight schools for the hijackers;
- Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, accused of helping nine of the hijackers travel to the United States and sending them $120,000 for expenses and flight training; and
- Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards.
Mohammed allegedly proposed the idea for the Sept. 11 attacks to Osama bin Laden as early as 1996, obtained funding for the attacks from bin Laden, oversaw the operation and trained the hijackers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mohammed was born in Pakistan's Baluchistan province and raised in Kuwait.