IN a major about-face, the Obama administration says 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo rather than a civilian court in New York.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the U-turn, saying that the accused 9/11 plotters could have been successfully prosecuted in a federal court, but blamed Congress for approving restrictions blocking trials of Guantanamo inmates in the United States.
“So today I am referring the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Bin Attash, Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, Ali Abdul-Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi to the Department of Defence to proceed in military commissions,” he said.
Mr Holder said that President Barack Obama’s administration had to “face a simple truth” that the congressional restrictions against trials in the United States were “unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future.”
“And we simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or for their family members who have waited for nearly a decade for justice,” he said.
Mr Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo, having held it up as a symbol of all that was wrong with the so-called “war on terror” waged by his predecessor George W. Bush.
The move, which was sure to disappoint some of Mr Obama’s left-leaning supporters, came the same day the President announced plans to stand for re-election next year.
It also followed a decision earlier by the US Supreme Court to reject three appeals by Guantanamo detainees protesting their indefinite detention.
The inmates had argued that their detentions violated international law and that the government had failed to provide sufficient evidence against them.
No date has been set yet for the high-profile trials of Sheikh Mohammed and the four other alleged al-Qa’ida figures, but the decision to try them at the US naval base in southeastern Cuba provided the latest evidence the detention centre will stay open for some time.
In one of his first acts as president in 2009, Mr Obama halted trials at Guantanamo and announced he would close the controversial detention camp within a year.
But he has been thwarted in his ambition by legal complications and strong opposition from both friends and foes in Congress.
“For the sake of the safety and security of the American people, I’m glad the president reconsidered his position on how and where to try these detainees,” said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate.
But Mr Holder criticised politicians for calling into question the effectiveness of civilian courts.
“Too many people – many of whom certainly know better – have expressed doubts about our time-honoured and time-tested system of justice,” said a sombre-faced Mr Holder.
Mr Obama’s position softened last month when he lifted a two-year freeze on new military trials for Guantanamo terror suspects, paving the way for today’s decision.
Known in counter-terrorism circles as “KSM,” Shiekh Mohammed is the self-proclaimed architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks and a host of other anti-Western plots.
His trial likely will face questions about evidence obtained from harsh interrogations carried out by US agents, which may have been a factor in the government’s decision to shift the case to a military commission that operates under more lenient rules for the prosecution.
He is known to have been “waterboarded” or subjected to simulated drowning 183 times during his years in US custody, a method widely recognised as torture.
Sheikh Mohammed was arrested in 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and handed over almost immediately to American agents who held him in secret prisons for over three years before sending him to Guantanamo in September 2006.
The US trained engineer was regarded as one of al-Qa’ida chief Osama bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants before his March 2003 capture in Pakistan.
In addition to felling the twin towers, KSM claims to have personally beheaded US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 with his “blessed right hand” and to have helped in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people.