WASHINGTON ― The charges announced Wednesday against two former members of the Islamic State group in the federal court system that President Donald Trump has previously called a “joke” and a “laughingstock” illustrate once again how his rhetoric is often out of step with reality.
For years, during President Barack Obama’s administration, prominent Republicans insisted that the nation’s untested and unproven military commissions system in Guantanamo was the right forum for terrorists.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump criticized Obama’s failed attempt to close Guantanamo and promised he’d keep it open and “load it up with some bad dudes.” One year into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order to keep the facility running.
But as the federal terrorism charges the Justice Department announced against former British citizens and Islamic State group members Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh indicate, the Trump administration has all but conceded that traditional civilian “Article III” courts are a much more proven method of securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks.
The pair were charged for their roles in what the Justice Department called a “brutal hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the death of four American citizens” ― journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.
After trial, Kotey and Elsheikh are almost certain to spend the rest of their lives in a federal prison, likely the federal “supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado. Under a deal with the United Kingdom ― the type that might have resulted in scrutiny if done by the Obama administration ― Attorney General William Barr agreed not to seek the death penalty against the duo if U.K. authorities turned over evidence in the case.
Meanwhile, families who lost their loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks are still waiting for justice after numerous delays. The Sept. 11 trials, in the best-case scenario, get underway sometime in 2021, a full 20 years after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
The Obama administration wanted to bring the defendants to American soil and put them on trial in New York City. Former Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan to bring the defendants to the United States to face justice in November 2009. But politics got in the way. Holder, back in 2013, said that the defendants “would be on death row as we speak” had the case proceeded in federal court.
Now, in the Trump administration, Justice Department officials painted the decision to subject two non-Americans to the federal civilian court system as a show of strength, a demonstration of superior American ideals, and the best path forward to secure justice for the victims’ families.
“If you have American blood in your veins, or if you have American blood on your hands, you will face American justice,” John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Demers said the Justice Department “has successfully prosecuted hundreds of defendants for terrorism-related offenses in our federal courts — and we will continue to do so.”
FBI Director Chris Wray said the suspects “will face justice in an American court of law for their crimes against American citizens.”
“These two alleged terrorists will now face the American justice system,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Zachary Terwilliger on Wednesday. “Later today, we expect these defendants to make their initial appearance a few miles away, in Alexandria, Virginia. At that hearing, they will be informed of the charges against them. They will be provided with counsel if they cannot afford it. They will receive medical care, and be housed in a sanitary facility and be provided with three meals a day, coupled with the due process of law, all things denied to James, Kayla, Steven and Peter and the other British and Japanese victims named in the indictment.”
Trump, since the 2016 campaign, hasn’t been as enthusiastic about Guantanamo Bay. Last year, Trump said it was “crazy” that the United States government spent $13 million per year to hold each prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, compared to around $78,000 annually to hold prisoners in “supermax” in the United States. And after an ISIS sympathizer killed Americans in 2017, Trump conceded that sending defendants to Guantanamo statistically “takes much longer than going through the Federal system.”
A decade ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was one of the most vocal opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to put terrorism defendants on trial in civilian courts. Graham, now an ally of President Trump, hasn’t been as vocal in his criticism of the use of civilian courts. A spokesman for Graham did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The indictment is embedded below.