NEW YORK – A U.S. citizen accused of fighting for al-Qaida went on trial Tuesday, a day after the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, in a case that hinges partly on fingerprints found on an unexploded bomb.
Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was born in Houston and raised in Dubai, was “an Amnerican citizen who turned his back on this country, joined terrorists and lived with them for seven years before he was caught,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Saritha Komatireddy said in opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn.
She also called the defendant “an American who sought to kill other Americans.”
Farekh’s case has drawn extra attention because of reports that American officials had debated whether to try to kill him in a drone strike, a step almost never taken against U.S. citizens. President Barack Obama’s administration ultimately decided to try for a capture and civilian prosecution instead.
Farekh, 31, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other crimes. One of his lawyers was to give an opening statement later Tuesday.
Most of the charges against Farekh stem from an attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost City, Afghanistan, on Jan. 19, 2009, involving two vehicles rigged with explosives and driven by suicide bombers. An initial blast injured several Afghans, including a pregnant woman, but a much larger bomb failed to go off, sparing the lives of American soldiers.
The jury was to hear testimony about how forensic technicians in Afghanistan recovered 18 of Farekh’s fingerprints on adhesive packing tape used to bind the explosives on the unexploded bomb, court paper said. Al-Qaida operatives who have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government also were expected to take the witness stand.
Before Farekh’s capture in Pakistan in 2014, the Pentagon nominated him for a kill list for terrorism suspects, with CIA officials also lobbying the White House to authorize his killing, according to a report in The New York Times. But the Department of Justice pushed back, questioning whether he was a big enough player in the terror network to take the extraordinary step of killing an American overseas without a trial.
Farekh was brought to New York City “so that this U.S. citizen could sit in a U.S. court and be held accoutable for his crimes,” Komatireddy said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has taken steps to give the CIA and the military more latitude to target and kill al-Qaida and Islamic State group militants without a presidential signoff in places including Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. military base in Cuba, is the best place to try terror suspects, saying civilian courts give legal protections to which they are not entitled.
During the presidential campaign, Trump, a Republican, said he wanted to keep Guantanamo Bay open after Obama, a Democrat, had long fought to close it. Trump promised to “load it up with some bad dudes.”