Somali Man To Face Terror Trial In New York

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The Obama administration says it has brought an accused terrorist back to the U.S. for a civilian trial — a move that won't go over well with many in Congress. The suspect was grabbed by the U.S. military from a ship at sea in the Middle East back in April. He was held aboard a Navy vessel for two months of questioning.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Obama administration says it has brought an accused terrorist back to the U.S. for a civilian trial, a move that won't go over well with many in Congress.

The suspect was grabbed by the U.S. military from a ship at sea in the Middle East back on April. He was held aboard a Navy vessel for two months for questioning.

NPR's justice correspondence, Carrie Johnson, is with us to talk about the case. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, tell us about the suspect himself.

JOHNSON: His name is Ahmed Warsame. He's a Somali man in his 20's, and he's described as a leader in al Shabaab. That's a Somali group that's been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.

The U.S. attorney in New York who brought the charges against him calls him a middle man between al Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and says he tried to arrange weapons deals between the two.

So that means he knew his figures in both of those groups which are of intense interest to the intelligence community, and he may have shared some of that intelligence with U.S. officials during that two months of questioning.

He's currently residing in a top security facility in New York, and he's due again in court in September.

MONTAGNE: And those two groups you speak from, they're from respectively Somalia and Yemen, that's where the operate. But is picking him up from a ship at sea something new, and also holding him at sea for a couple of months?

JOHNSON: I spoke yesterday with three administration officials who are involved in or briefed about the case, and they say the national security team got intelligence on this man back in April. They picked him up, and the government's high value interrogation group sprung into action, peppering him with questions for two months, and after that period of time, law enforcement agents arrived to question him.

He was read his Miranda rights, which he waived, and he talked some more for about a week. While it's unusual to bring a terrorism suspect from overseas onto U.S. soil these days, U.S. officials say they brought more than two dozen Somali pirates into U.S. courts over the last couple of years. So there's some precedent for this.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about what many members of Congress are opposed to trying terrorism suspects in American civilian courts.

JOHNSON: Well, Renee, it all has to do with the shifting politics surrounding national security. The House this year has voted to tie the Obama administration's hands on treatment of detainees. They don't want any detainees brought to the U.S. for a civilian trial, period. And they don't want that facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed either.

The Senate Armed Services Panel recently reached a bipartisan compromise that would require the Pentagon to sign off on bringing any detainees onto U.S. soil.

But administration sources involved in this case involving the Somali man say it was well under way long before Congress was considering any of these measures this year.

MONTAGNE: Well, given the fierce opposition from some in Congress, why did the administration decide to send this particular man to New York, which of course is, you know, a very sensitive place for a trial like this, but, you know, for a civilian trial?

JOHNSON: I'm told that this went all the way up to the highest levels of the government, and that a multi-agency group representing the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community unanimously recommended this man be sent to U.S. to face civilian trial. There are some reasons for that, and those reasons are mostly legal reasons.

Some of the nine charges this man faces include material support for terrorist groups, conspiracy and weapons charges, and if he's convicted of several of those charges, he could face a mandatory life sentence in American courts.

Some of those charges are not available in the military commission system. Others are available, but it's not entirely clear how they'll hold up on appeal. So folks in the administration say civilian courts were the safest best in terms of the law. There also seems to be some support for this within New York. The New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly, says his unit was involved in this case all along, and he supports this move.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Carrie Johnson in NPR's justice correspondent.

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