NEW YORK — A Libyan charged in the deadly 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa pleaded not guilty Tuesday to terrorism charges in a brief proceeding that followed a familiar script in a courthouse that has hosted numerous terrorism cases in the past two decades.
A frail looking Abu Anas al-Libi entered the plea in a heavily guarded federal courtroom in Manhattan 10 days after he was captured during an Oct. 5 military raid in Libya. The 49-year-old al-Libi was interrogated aboard a U.S. Navy warship for a week before being brought to New York on Saturday.
Al-Libi, who has a thick gray beard, kept his hands folded on his lap as the judge read the charges. His court-appointed federal defender, David Patton, entered the plea on his behalf.
Al-Libi was handcuffed and led out of court after the judge ordered him detained as a flight risk. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin had requested detention, calling al-Libi a “clear danger.”
Early in the proceeding, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked him how he wanted to be addressed in court. Al-Libi, who spoke in Arabic and listened to the proceeding with help from a translator, said he preferred to be known as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai.
There was no reference in court to al-Libi’s longstanding health issues, except for a request that the judge sign a medical order, which Kaplan said he had already done. Patton and Sabrina Shroff, another public defender assigned to the case, did not immediately comment. Al-Libi had signed an affidavit to say he could not afford to hire a lawyer.
Al-Libi is charged in a Manhattan indictment in bombings that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans. Known as one of al-Qaida’s early computer experts, he is accused of helping plan and conduct surveillance for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Al-Libi is believed to have used an early-generation Apple computer to assemble surveillance photographs in Kenya.
Patton told the judge that he had read to his client the three paragraphs that pertained to al-Libi in a more than 100-page embassy bombings indictment.
Lewin said it was not a death penalty-eligible case.
Al-Libi’s family and former associates have denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida and said he has lived an ordinary life since coming home in 2011.
His prosecution in the United States continues a policy of bringing suspected al-Qaida sympathizers and operatives to civilian courts rather than military tribunals.
The civilian court prosecutions have continued before and after President Barack Obama’s administration was forced to reverse its plans to prosecute admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several others in federal court in Manhattan and instead bring them before military tribunals.
Al-Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list since it was introduced shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A reward of $5 million was offered for his capture.
He is the sixth man to appear in a Manhattan court to face charges in the embassy bombing attacks. The other five are serving life sentences.