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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Osama bin Laden's son-in-law is expected to appear in a New York courtroom today. His case is considered important, and not just because he was so close to bin Laden. It's also significant because the Obama administration chose to try him in federal court, and not in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: On the surface, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden's son-in-law, would appear to be the perfect candidate for a trial at Guantanamo Bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SULAIMAN ABU GHAITH: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's him in a video that al-Qaida produced more than a decade ago. Over the years, he often co-starred with his father-in-law in al-Qaida's propaganda videos. His affiliation with the group, and connection with bin Laden, would have been enough to qualify him for a trial before a military commission. But it didn't turn out that way. Instead, the U.S. brought him to a federal courtroom in New York.

KAREN GREENBERG: The Abu Ghaith case is important for a lot of reasons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Karen Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security, at Fordham Law School.

GREENBERG: What's interesting about this case is the turn away from Guantanamo. Abu Ghaith is a person who would have gone to Guantanamo in any iteration of - if we were going to bring foreign terrorist suspects who are involved with al-Qaida at allegedly high levels; but who we, for some reason, are not going to bring in the federal court system. He's an obvious person, if you're going to expand the Guantanamo population.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But Greenberg says the Obama administration decided against that because it wanted to send a message. And that message is, foreign terrorists the U.S. captures will go where officials think they have the best case - not necessarily Guantanamo.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: This is Matthew Waxman, professor at Columbia Law School.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Waxman used to be a Pentagon adviser on detainee issues, during the Bush administration. Congress passed legislation in 2011 that limited the president's ability to bring detainees to the U.S. for trial. Waxman says that almost guaranteed that the president would do anything to avoid sending new suspects to Guantanamo.

WAXMAN: I think any president will be very, very reluctant to send detainees to Guantanamo because their flexibility is then substantially diminished.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's at least part of the reason why bin Laden's son-in-law has ended up in New York. There's been a lot of focus on his case but over the past six months, with little fanfare, the Justice Department has introduced more than a dozen other foreign terrorism cases into the federal court system in New York. Karen Greenberg says there's been a pattern to the charges the administration has filed against these defendants.

GREENBERG: Nearly all of these cases include either material support statutes or conspiracy charges.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Both of which are not permitted at Guantanamo.

GREENBERG: Both of which are now, not permitted at Guantanamo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Not permitted because material support and conspiracy, which are common terrorism charges in U.S. courts, have been problematic at Guantanamo. There's some question whether material support and conspiracy are war crimes. The military commissions at Guantanamo are supposed to be trying defendants who break the laws of war.

Bin Laden's son-in-law is 47 years old now. He's balding, and has slimmed down from his pudgy days in al-Qaida videos. He's being charged with conspiring to kill Americans, and he has pleaded not guilty.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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