In 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to try the alleged mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian court in Lower Manhattan it caused a firestorm of criticism and raised security concerns. Federal prosecutors on Saturday announced the arrival of Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Islamic cleric and alleged terrorist mastermind linked to al-Qaida, for trial in that same civilian court without either.
The 54-year-old al-Masri was extradited to the U.S. from the U.K., and faces an 11-count indictment for terror plotting in three countries, as well as conspiring with Seattle men to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon.
In an interview with WNYC, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said al-Masri did not hold the same significance as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "He was seen as the prime mover behind September 11th, certainly the master planner so it was a whole different emotional level here," Kelly said.
Kelly said he was given ample advance notice about al-Masri’s arrival in Lower Manhattan by the U.S. Marshal Service and believes there will be no additional security-related traffic delays for the area’s businesses and residents on Tuesday when al-Masri makes his formal appearance before a judge.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg added the city knows how to protect people and the public will be well protected.
"We look at everything every day. We change our security techniques, where we deploy, and we certainly can't talk about that," the mayor said at the Columbus Day parade.
Bloomberg also noted that people on trial are in court houses that are "virtually unassailable."
It’s a sharp contrast to initial NYPD contingencies for a possible Mohammed trial in Lower Manhattan, which included new vehicle checkpoints and additional unannounced vehicle searches. City overtime estimates for the Mohammed terror trial were put at $200 million.
Kelly remained confident the civilian legal system could handle high profile terror cases. "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others are being tried at a military tribunal," Kelly said "but I think our criminal justice system on the federal level is certainly able to handle [high profile terror cases] as well."
Catherine McVay Hughes, chair of lower Manhattan's Community Board 1, said a lot of the uproar over Mohammed being brought to trial in the city had to do with the price tag for the checkpoints and additional police presence that surfaced with Attorney General Holder’s announcement.
"The prior situation with a possible 9-11 trial was different," Hughes said, "because of the proximity of the scene of the crime and extraordinary disruptive security arrangements that were planned."
She notes that many international crime figures regularly pass through the federal facilities in Lower Manhattan, which has a residential population of about 60,000, without grabbing much attention from the public. "We have hardened criminals and terrorists who are tried all the time in lower Manhattan," Hughes said.
Holder’s announcement to hold a trial of Mohammed in Lower Manhattan was seen as follow through on a campaign commitment by President Obama who promised to the shutter the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. After entrenched Congressional opposition, as well as push back from Mayor Bloomberg, who originally backed the civilian trail for Mohammed in Lower Manhattan, Holder reversed himself. The alleged 9-11 mastermind remains in Guantanamo.
Al-Masri and the four other men arrived in the U.S. after a multi-year extradition fight. Britain's High Court ruled Friday that the men had no more grounds for appeal and could be sent to the U.S. immediately.
Two of the men appeared in federal court in Manhattan to face charges for their alleged role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The other two are accused of running websites to support Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime, Chechen rebels and associated terrorist groups and appeared in court in Connecticut.
Ilya Marritz contributed reporting.