It was a victory for justice when Abu Anas al-Libi, a suspected Al Qaeda operative, stood before a judge on Tuesday in a New York federal court. Indicted in 1998 alongside Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in bombing US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Libi had been on the run for 15 years when he was captured in the streets of Tripoli by a US special operations team. The message the US government sent was clear: Americans have long memories. Terrorist suspects can run but they can’t hide. But there was another message in Libi’s appearance in New York, rather than at Guantanamo Bay. The American justice system is just. People accused of crimes by the US government ought to be tried in American courts, not left in limbo endlessly.
It is unclear whether Libi, who appears to have been working for Libya’s Oil Ministry when he was captured, is still an active member of Al Qaeda with knowledge of immediate threats. But even if he did have actionable intelligence, calls by members of Congress to keep him incommunicado for years, instead of putting him on trial, miss the mark. He presumably was questioned on any ongoing threats before his arraignment for the embassy bombings. There may be certain instances when enemy combatants, picked up on the battlefield, present an ongoing threat to US security, even if they have not committed a legally prosecutable crime. They could thus be held by the military under the rules of war. But that’s not the case with Libi, who was under indictment for a clearly defined offense at the time of his arrest.
Over the past four years, the federal court system has proven itself to be more than capable of trying such cases. At least 125 people have been convicted of terrorism charges in federal courts since 2009. Meanwhile, military trials at Guantanamo Bay have not produced a single conviction — or acquittal, for that matter — during that time period. Those who criticize the decision to send Libi to New York show too little faith in the American legal system. It’s fully capable of exposing Libi’s culpability for truly heinous acts.