WASHINGTON — A top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay will be sent to New York for trial, an Obama administration official said Wednesday, a major step in President Barack Obama's plan to close the detention center by early next year.
Ahmed Ghailani would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to disclose the decision, told The Associated Press the administration has decided to bring Ghailani to trial in New York. He was indicted there for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa — attacks that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. It was not immediately clear when the transfer would occur.
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Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004 and transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba two years later.
The official said the administration plans to announce Thursday morning that Ghailani will be brought to trial for the embassy attacks. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
The decision on the first U.S. trial of a Guantanamo detainee comes as President Barack Obama faces pressure from across the political spectrum on his plan to close the detention center by January 2010. Democrats have said they want to see the president's plan for closing the base before it funds the effort, and Republicans are fighting to keep Guantanamo open.
Some lawmakers have already voiced opposition to bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial, even in heavily guarded settings.
Obama is scheduled to give a major speech addressing Guantanamo and national security Thursday morning.
The AP reported in March that Ghailani was among a handful of high-value suspects prosecutors were considering bringing to trial on charges that predate the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Trying Ghailani for the embassy attacks may help prosecutors avoid legal challenges surrounding Ghailani's detention and treatment.
U.S. authorities say he helped plan and deliver the explosives in the embassy attack, and later rose up through the al-Qaida ranks.
He has denied knowing the TNT and oxygen tanks would be used to make a bomb. He also denied buying a vehicle used in the attack, saying he could not drive.
Just before the embassy bombings, Ghailani flew to Pakistan.
Last year, military prosecutors charged that after the 1998 bombings, Ghailani worked for al-Qaida as a document forger, trainer at a terror camp and bodyguard to Osama bin Laden.
The Ghailani decision revives a long-dormant case charging bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders of plotting the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The blasts killed more than 200 people and injured thousands, including many who were blinded by shards of flying glass. The attacks prompted 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.