After spending two months being interrogated aboard a U.S. warship, a Somali man described as having ties to al-Qaida has arrived in New York to face terrorism charges.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was captured April 19 and then transferred to the U.S. Navy ship, where he was questioned at sea by intelligence officials, senior administration officials said Tuesday. Warsame reportedly provided valuable intelligence about al-Qaida in Yemen and its relationship with Somalia's al-Shabab militants.
Warsame pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Tuesday. Court documents unsealed Tuesday show that the Justice Department plans to use a laptop computer, handwriting analysis, USB drives and a memory card as evidence at trial.
Warsame is believed to have been a middle man between al-Shabab and the Yemeni franchise of al-Qaida, NPR's Carrie Johnson said.
"He tried to arrange weapons deals between the two. That means he knows figures in both groups," Johnson said.
After Warsame was questioned by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a team of experts from the military, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department, he was turned over to FBI interrogators who started the process over in a way that could be used in court. He was read and waived his rights under U.S. law not to incriminate himself and instead opted to keep talking for days, officials said.
The case shows that the Obama administration is sticking to its plan to use civilian courts to prosecute terrorists. It also offers a glimpse at how the U.S. plans to interrogate detainees now that Obama has closed the CIA's network of secret prisons.
"U.S. officials say they have brought over two dozen Somali pirates into U.S. courts over the past few years. So, there's some precedent for this," Johnson said.
In the case of Warsame, Johnson said there are sound legal reasons for bringing him into the civilian courts.
"Some of the nine charges this man faces include material support for terrorist groups and conspiracy and weapons charges. If he's convicted of some of those charges, he could face a mandatory life sentence in American courts," she said. "Some of those charges are not available in the military commission system. Others are available, but it's not entirely clear how they would hold up on appeal."
The unusual case against Warsame was foreshadowed in congressional testimony late last month. Obama's choice to become commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Navy Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, told senators that the U.S. could hold suspected terrorists on naval ships until prosecutors file charges against them. McRaven did not say exactly how long such detentions could last.
Congress has blocked the administration from transferring any detainees out of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial in the U.S., and some in Congress are also questioning whether all new terrorism cases should be handled by military commissions. Most recently, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, said two men arrested by the FBI on terrorism charges should be prosecuted at Guantanamo Bay.
Court documents unsealed Tuesday said Warsame was a fighter for al-Shabab and helped train others in the organization in 2009, then helped support and train al-Qaida in Yemen until 2011. That makes him a potentially valuable intelligence asset, because he had unique access in both groups.
Warsame's next court appearance was scheduled for Sept. 8.
Carrie Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.