Al-Qaeda member convicted in New York court for 2003 killings of U.S. servicemen

Admitted al-Qaeda operative Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Harun convicted on Thursday of killing two U.S. servicemen on a battlefield in Afghanistan nearly 14 years ago.

Jerod Dennis and Ray Losano were killed in a 2003 battle in Afghanistan near Pakistan border

Jerry Dennis, father of Jerod Dennis who was one of two American serviceman who died in a 2003 attack in Afghanistan, speaks to media after leaving the trial of accused of Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun, known by the nom de guerre Spin Ghul, on March 6. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Admitted al-Qaeda operative Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Harun is just the type of "bad dude" that Donald Trump has said should be locked up at Guantanamo Bay.

Maybe in the future, that's where people like him will once again end up. But under an Obama-era policy that favored trial in civilian courts for anti-American fighters captured overseas, Harun was sent instead to New York, where he was convicted on Thursday of killing two U.S. servicemen, Jerod Dennis and Ray Losano, on a battlefield in Afghanistan nearly 14 years ago.

Jurors deliberated for just two hours before finding him guilty.

If Harun, who was born in Saudi Arabia but claims to be a citizen of Niger, had been captured earlier he would have undoubtedly ended up at Guantanamo rather than in the regular U.S. legal system.

Prosecutors said he took part in a deadly 2003 ambush of U.S. troops near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Later that year, they said, he left for Africa and masterminded a failed plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Nigeria.

He was detained in Libya and held in a prison there from 2005 until 2011, when he was freed under unclear circumstances around the time that Muammar Gaddafi was fighting an insurgency.

Harun was detained by Italian officers that same year after being found on a refugee ship in the Mediterranean Sea. He was transferred to U.S. custody in 2013.

Defendant didn't attend trial

One of the key pieces of evidence against him was a Quran that prosecutors said he had left on the battlefield in Afghanistan following the 2003 firefight.

A U.S. soldier took it home as a keepsake. Investigators later tracked the Quran down and found Harun's fingerprints on it, the government said.
In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Harun is shown. (U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York via AP)

Prosecutors told jurors he gave a lengthy confession detailing how he became an al-Qaeda combatant under the direction of high-ranking members of the terror network, some of them still detained at Guantanamo.

During the trial, Air Force Master Sgt. Lee Blackwell described the 2003 battle and the dying moments of a comrade who was shot in the face.

"He was pulling at me, clawing at me," Blackwell said. "I told him I loved him. I was proud of him."

In his confession, Harun described throwing a grenade at the soldiers, shooting an assault rifle and yelling "God is great!" prosecutors said.

Harun, 43, refused to attend his trial in New York.

At a court hearing last year, he demanded both the return of his Quran and a military trial in Guantanamo.

"I am a warrior," he said, "and the war is not over."

Unclear strategy going forward

Harun's conviction keeps alive a perfect track record for federal prosecutors in New York. Since 9/11, they have tried more than two dozen people accused of committing acts of terrorism overseas. Every one of those people has been convicted.

"It's really the last gasp of the Obama administration to prove that even in a battlefield situation, the courts work well," said Karen Greenberg, a national security expert at Fordham University.

Whether that strategy will fade under Trump is unclear.

The population of detainees at the U.S. military detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has dropped to 41, down from a one-time high of 680, but Trump has pledged to again "load it up with some bad dudes."

New U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said in a radio interview earlier this month that Guantanamo was "a very fine place for holding these kinds of criminals."

He also indicated the administration would retool efforts to use military tribunals to prosecute alleged terrorists.

Critics say that approach flies in the face of the strong track record for civilian courts.

Legal challenges in the military tribunals have repeatedly short-circuited or indefinitely delayed cases against five Guantanamo detainees, including self-described Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in New York have racked up convictions.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only former Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court, was convicted in 2010 of conspiring in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist and al-Qaeda associate, was sentenced to an 86-year prison term in 2010 for shooting at U.S. authorities who tried to question her at a police station in Afghanistan.

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to kill Americans.