The Trump administration has brought an al-Qaida suspect to the United States to face trial in federal court, backing off its hard-line position that terrorism suspects should be sent to the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, rather than to civilian courtrooms.
The suspect, Ali Charaf Damache, was transferred from Spain and appeared Friday in federal court in Philadelphia, making him the first foreigner brought to the United States to face terrorism charges under President Donald Trump. Authorities believe Damache was an al-Qaida recruiter. He was charged with helping plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly said that terrorism suspects should be held and prosecuted at Guantánamo Bay. Sessions said terrorists did not deserve the same legal rights as common criminals and such trials were too dangerous to hold on U.S. soil. With Damache’s transfer, Sessions has adopted a strategy that he vehemently opposed when it was carried out under President Barack Obama.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions about whether Sessions had changed his views on civilian trials or why Damache was being brought to federal court.
For years, Republicans portrayed civilian trials as a weakness in Obama’s national security policy. His plan to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in New York fizzled amid controversy. Since then, however, federal prosecutors have consistently won convictions and lengthy prison sentences for foreign terrorists and helped glean crucial intelligence.
Damache’s transfer represents a collision of the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric and the reality of fighting terrorism in 2017. Though Trump has promised to fill Guantánamo Bay with “bad dudes,” nations worldwide, including the United States’ most important allies, have come to regard the prison there as a legal morass and a symbol of American abuse and mistreatment.
Left unclear is whether Spain would have extradited the suspect to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba for trial by military commission. The United States has never negotiated an extradition agreement to Guantánamo.
Damache, 52, a dual Algerian and Irish citizen, was arrested in Ireland in 2010. But he was released after an Irish judge rejected a request from the United States to extradite him. He was arrested again in 2015 in Spain. Under Obama, the Justice Department began seeking his extradition, and that effort continued under Trump. Had the Trump administration insisted on bringing Damache to Guantánamo Bay, it would have met strong opposition from Europe.
Damache is wanted in connection with a failed attempt to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a dog’s body. His identity surfaced in the high-profile case of Colleen LaRose, who became known as “Jihad Jane.” LaRose, of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty in 2011 to providing support to a terrorist group, conspiring to murder a foreigner and lying to the FBI. She was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison.
New York Times reporter Charlie Savage and Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.