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Republican Lawmakers Angry Over Handling of Somali Terrorism Suspect

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (file photo)

The case of a Somali man brought to New York earlier this week after being questioned on a Navy ship suggests the Obama administration has found a new way to deal with terrorism suspects captured abroad. But the case is generating friction between President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress.

One of President Barack Obama's first vows in office was to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has already closed CIA's secret interrogation sites abroad.

So it was not clear what his administration planned to do if it captured what's known in intelligence circles as a high-value terrorism suspect abroad.

Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was detained at sea on April 19. He was questioned for nearly two months aboard a Navy warship and officials say he gave important information regarding militant groups in Somalia and Yemen.

The Somali suspect was brought to a district court in New York on Monday for trial.

Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch says that was a good way to handle the case.

"The fact that the government decided to bring this person into the southern district of New York to prosecute him I think is an excellent sign and demonstrates what we've heard from this administration all along - that they recognize that U.S. federal courts are an incredibly potent tool in countering terrorism," said Prasow.

On Wednesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Warsame should have been sent to Guantanamo.

Republicans want foreign terrorism suspects tried before military commissions. They have led Congress's successful effort to prevent the administration from transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial in federal courts.

Cully Stimson of the conservative Heritage Foundation is a former deputy assistant defense secretary. He says many lawmakers resent having been informed of Warsame's transfer after the fact.

"Many are thinking that this administration did this in this secretive way to make an end run [detour] around the courtesy notification of Congress that they were bringing a terrorist suspect into the United States," said Stimson.

One of the reasons some lawmakers don't want civilian trials is because of the rights given to defendants. One of those is known as the Miranda warning, which means a suspect must be given the choice to remain silent and consult an attorney before any questioning that can be used in court.

Mason Clutter of the Constitution Project, which aims to strengthen the rule of law in the United States, says those rights do not apply to the intelligence questioning on the warship.

"The FBI does have the ability to gather intelligence information from an individual before they read them their Miranda rights and if after reading them their Miranda rights the individual waives those rights they can continue to question them as well," said Clutter.

Officials say Warsame did waive those rights and continued to provide information.

Another issue raised by human rights lawyers is whether U.S. forces were authorized to detain the suspect since he doesn't belong to al-Qaida, which was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But court documents allege that he fought with the Somalia-based al-Shabab militant group and helped train Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Hassan is a Somali religious scholar based in Saudi Arabia who is well known in Somalia for his knowledge of militant groups there. He spoke to VOA's Somali language service.

“The relationship between Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda is not a secret one," said Hassan.

Hassan said Al-Shabab has gotten ammunition from al-Qaida commanders in Yemen while some top Al Shabab figures were trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.