The British government's imminent move to extradite five prominent Islamic militants to the United States for trial could trigger security and political headaches for President Barack Obama and his administration.
After years of appeals, two British judges gave final legal sanction on Friday to the extradition of the militants, who include a one-time U.K.-based spokesman for late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a notorious hook-handed imam who once preached at a big London mosque.
Under the terms of British and European court rulings authorizing the extradition, they must be tried in U.S. civilian courts and federal prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty.
Some U.S. officials nonetheless remain concerned that if the five militants are tried in jurisdictions where they were indicted - New York City and Connecticut - this could ignite politically motivated debate about security threats and coddling of militants.
When it first took office, the Obama administration said it planned to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and bring some of the most notorious militants held there, including alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, to trial in civilian courts. But this plan sparked political uproar and Congress approved legislation banning the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States for trial.
Law enforcement sources said agencies in the New York area were concerned about the extraditions - which could occur any day - and plans are already being made to bolster security, if necessary, to cope with related threats. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
No trial soon
While the defendants are likely to make a brief court appearance soon after they arrive on U.S. soil, there is little likelihood that a full trial will begin anytime soon. More likely, an official said, is extended pre-trial litigation by the defendants.
In anticipation of possible political attacks, administration officials are strongly defending the guarantees the United States gave to Britain promising that the extradited men would be tried in civilian courts.
Those pledges, a U.S. official said, were given over a period of years by both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
One of the arguments on which the defendants based years of appeals against extradition was that they could be sent to Guantanamo, where they could be tried by military tribunals and sentenced to death.
But "the British government requested, and the U.S. government provided, binding commitments that, if extradited, the defendants would only be tried in a federal civilian court, rather than a military commission," a U.S. counterterrorism official said. The United States also promised that no death sentences would be sought.
Without those commitments, extradition would not have been possible, the official said, and because the five face no charges in Britain they likely would have been released.
Two of the five militants facing extradition - bin Laden's former London spokesmen Khaled Al-Fawwaz, and Adel Bary - have fought for years against extradition on charges that they and others were involved in deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The two have been imprisoned in Britain for more than a decade.
Another is Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian-born imam indicted by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly providing support to al Qaeda, for his alleged involvement in a 1998 hostage-taking incident in Yemen, and an attempt to set up a training camp for militants in Oregon in 1999.
Abu Hamza became notorious for his inflammatory speeches at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London and for the prosthetic hook that replaced a hand blown off in murky circumstances.
Abu Hamza, Fawwaz and Bary face trials in Federal Court for the Southern District of New York. Before and during their trial, a law enforcement source said, the defendants would likely be held in a high-rise prison near courthouses in lower Manhattan, close to city hall and police headquarters and only blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attack.
Two other defendants facing extradition, Babar Ahmad and Syed Ahsan, charged with allegedly supporting al Qaeda and other militant groups by operating various websites promoting Islamic holy war, face federal charges in Connecticut and likely would face trial in that state.