NEW YORK (CNN) — An alleged al Qaeda operative accused of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania pleaded not guilty Tuesday to terrorism charges brought against him in federal court in New York.
As Abu Anas al Libi walked into court to face the charges, his hands were shackled, his hair was short and he sported a red, bushy beard, graying around his face and chin. He moved slowly and appeared unsteady. He told the court he was 49, but he looked 10 to 15 years older. His family told CNN he suffers from hepatitis C. Judge Lewis Kaplan signed a medical order for care.
Wearing gray sweatpants, a black, long-sleeved shirt and black flip-flops with beige socks, al Libi walked from the holding area into the stately wood-paneled courtroom.
In response to a question from Kaplan, al Libi said he preferred to be addressed by his proper name, Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai.
Abu Anas al Libi is the name he was known by within al Qaeda, al Libi meaning from Libya.
Al Libi answered the few questions posed to him by Kaplan through a translator. “Yes,” he said, he understood the charges against him; and “No, I can’t,” he said, when asked if he could afford a lawyer.
He will be appointed a Criminal Justice Act attorney trained in handling federal terrorism cases. He is being held without bail, since Kaplan agreed with prosecutors that he poses a flight risk and is a danger the community.
U.S. Army Delta Force soldiers seized him on October 5 from outside his house in Tripoli, Libya.
U.S. officials say he was taken initially to a Navy ship for questioning before he was taken to the United States over the weekend.
Prosecutors say he worked as a senior aide to Osama bin Laden during al Qaeda’s formative years. Among the charges, he is accused of taking photos of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in preparation for the attack. A truck bomb detonated, destroying a nearby building and killing some 215 people, among them a handful of embassy employees. A second coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, took place at virtually the same time, August 7,1998, killing embassy personnel there.
His arrival in the U.S. has reopened a debate over whether international terrorist suspects should be tried in U.S. courts.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said Monday that it was “unfortunate” that al Libi was on U.S. soil.
“It shows the inherent flaws in the U.S. policy decision to try in the U.S., because once you arrive on U.S. soil, that ends the interrogation of these high-value detainees,” King said. He added that that wouldn’t have happened had al Libi been sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and faced a military commission there.
U.S. or military court
President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have previously said they prefer to try people such as al Libi in American courts.
In 2009, Holder said five detainees with alleged ties to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to New York for trial in civilian court.
Holder then reversed course, announcing that accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others would be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo.
Al Libi was indicted in 2001 by the federal court in the Southern District of New York in the embassy bombings and in connection with his alleged roles in al Qaeda conspiracies to attack U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said last week that there was no chance that al Libi would end up at Guantanamo.
“The administration’s position on Guantanamo is clear: Our goal is not to add to the population, it’s to reduce it, which we’ve done,” she said. “Our policy is not to send any new detainees to Guantanamo.”
Family wants a lawyer
Al Libi’s family members said they had received no news about him from the U.S. or Libyan governments and were shocked to learn that he had arrived in the United States.
His son, Abdullah, said the family hoped to get a lawyer who would “work with him, for him.”
“We don’t want him talking to just anyone,” Abdullah said. “We don’t want just any lawyer asking him questions.”
Some terrorism experts have questioned how much valuable intelligence al Libi would be able to provide. A former jihadist associate told CNN last week that it was unlikely that he still had an active role with the terrorist network.
His wife said he was no longer a member of al Qaeda, had a normal life and was seeking a job with the Libyan Oil Ministry.
A U.S. official said al Libi received care at a medical facility in New York for a pre-existing medical condition and is “doing better.”
The official did not detail the medical issue. His wife told CNN this month that al Libi has a severe case of hepatitis C and that she was worried about his health.
Al Libi is to return to court on October 22 at 4:30 p.m., when he is assigned a permanent lawyer.