After two months of interrogation aboard a U.S. Navy ship, an alleged Somali militant was indicted Tuesday in New York and charged with supporting terrorists in Somalia and Yemen.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, who was captured by U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf in April, faces nine counts. They include providing material support to al Shabaab, a Somali group the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda, considered the network's most-dangerous affiliate.
The decision to try Mr. Warsame in federal court rather than before a military commission reflects the administration's desire to avoid sending more detainees to the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The move could spark more tension between the White House and Congress over the best way to prosecute suspected terrorists.
Among the factors that tilted the decision for the administration: Civilian courts typically hand out stiffer sentences for the particular charges Mr. Warsame faces, and offer more leeway for terrorism-related charges than do military commissions, U.S. officials said. If convicted, Mr. Warsame could face a mandatory life sentence.
Criticized by congressional Republicans and abandoned by Democrats, the Obama administration earlier this year dropped plans to move the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators to New York for trial in federal court.
But Attorney General Eric Holder, citing the Justice Department's nearly unbroken string of convictions, has said civilian courts remain the preferred venue for terrorism prosecutions.
The administration's decision drew immediate flak. "As an active member of two terrorist groups that have planned attacks against Americans and our allies, Warsame should be treated as an enemy combatant and tried in a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where classified information and the public can be fully protected," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican.
U.S. officials described Mr. Warsame, believed to be in his mid-20s, as a mid-level al Shabaab militant, but he was considered particularly valuable to the U.S. intelligence community because of his alleged role as a conduit between the Somali group and al Qaeda in Yemen. That's one of the clearest indications yet of the deepening relationship between the two terror organizations.
After he was captured while traveling by boat from Somalia to Yemen, Mr. Warsame was held aboard a U.S. Navy vessel at sea in the Gulf region. Onboard, he was questioned for by the High-Value Interrogation Group, which is led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and includes specialists from the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, an administration official said. He was not read his Miranda rights during that period.
After the intelligence interviews concluded, Mr. Warsame was advised of his Miranda rights and a separate FBI "clean team" re-interviewed Mr. Warsame for evidence that could to be used in a possible trial, officials said. A senior law-enforcement official said Mr. Warsame waived his right to remain silent and continued to talk.
"The intelligence obtained from these interrogations has been used to give us a better understanding of what we're facing in Yemen from al Qaeda," a senior administration official said. Mr. Warsame "was uniquely positioned to provide us with important insights into the inner workings of AQAP and al Shabaab and the growing relationship between the two organizations."
According to the indictment, Mr. Warsame fought for al Shabaab in Somalia in 2009, and provided money, equipment, and personnel to the group over the next two years.
He also received explosives and "military-type" training from al Qaeda in Yemen in 2010 and 2011 and is charged with teaching explosives-making. He is also charged with brokering a weapons deal with al Qaeda on behalf of al Shabaab.
Terrorism analysts have long been concerned about potential cooperation between al Qaeda and al Shabaab, given the geographical proximity between Somalia and Yemen across the Gulf of Aden and the weak central governments in both countries. However, only last year did al Shabaab carry out its first international attack, a bombing in Uganda.
Al Qaeda's "presence within al Shabaab is increasingly leading that group to pose a regional threat," concluded the White House counterterrorism strategy, released in late June.wsj