Al-Marri pleads guilty to conspiring to aid al-Qaida
After years of speculation, a guilty plea revealed what many had thought: Ali Sahleh Kahlah al-Marri was a terrorist.
The Qatari national admitted Thursday in U.S. District Court that he was a member of al-Qaida, that he attended terrorist training camps and he was asked to come here by a high-ranking al-Qaida official “to further their terrorist objectives.”
Al-Marri pleaded to one count of conspiring with others to aid al-Qaida and faces 15 years in prison when sentenced July 30. A second charge of providing help to al-Qaida will likely be dropped at that sentencing hearing.
While al-Marri’s exact mission wasn’t clear, information on his laptop regarding various cyanide compounds and sulfuric acid, which can be used to create cyanide gas, were “consistent with al-Qaida attack planning regarding the use of cyanide gases,” the plea agreement states.
In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said the nation is safer.
“Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we, as a nation, still face,” he said. “But it also reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to the values upon which this nation was founded and the rule of law.”
What is now known
For eight pages, al-Marri’s plea agreement details how he attended several terrorist training camps in Pakistan, where he learned basic military skills as well as information on poisons, how to conceal material on computers and counter surveillance. It was at one of these camps that he met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, who later in 2001, asked al-Marri to go to the United States for a mission to help al-Qaida.
Yet, none of the allegations made in the past — that he was here to hack into main computers of U.S. banks to damage the U.S. economy, that he was running a credit card scam to help fund al-Qaida or that he was here to lead the second wave of attacks — surfaced.
Instead, the factual basis focused on his relationship with Mohammed, who in 2001 was the chief of external operations for al-Qaida, and later, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, the paymaster of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mohammed told al-Marri to arrive no later than Sept. 10, 2001, to communicate in code and to remain here for an indefinite period of time. He directed al-Marri to al-Hawsawi, who gave him $10,000 to buy items for his mission, including a laptop.
Armed with that, he applied for a student visa to attend Bradley University as a graduate student. Realizing it would take too long, he had instead decided to enter the school as an undergraduate to get a second bachelor’s degree. The plea agreement states al-Marri rarely attended classes and was in failing status by the end of his first semester.
Rather than attend class, the plea agreement states he attempted to call al-Hawsawi and other al-Qaida operatives with pre-paid credit cards, at times traveling far from Peoria to find an inconspicuous place to use a pay phone.
“By this time, he knew al-Qaida was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and understood why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had directed him to be in the United States before that date,” the plea agreement states.
The plea agreement also mentioned a trip to Macomb in 2000 where he used a stolen Social Security number to open fraudulent bank accounts there and set up a fictitious business using a false name.
Both sides praised the plea, albeit for different reasons. Speaking to reporters, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Lang said the plea showed the “exemplary” work done by law enforcement to stop a man who came into the country on Sept. 10, 2001, to “prepare for future acts of terrorism.”
Andrew Savage said the move was a right one for his client. The Charleston, S.C.-based lawyer took exception that al-Marri was referred to as a “sleeper agent.”
“He unequivocally would state that he would not have undertaken any violent actions that would have harmed an innocent person,” he said.
However, Arthur M. Cummings, of the FBI’s National Security Branch, disagreed.
“Ali al-Marri was an al-Qaida ‘sleeper’ operative working on U.S. soil and directed by the chief planner of the 9-11 attacks. Al-Marri researched the use of chemical weapons, potential targets and maximum casualties,” he said. “The investigation that disrupted his plot began with tips from local police partners. The investigation that followed took the FBI agents and task force officers around the globe to develop the intelligence to prevent any potential attack and the evidence to bring al-Marri to justice.”
When al-Marri strode into the courtroom for the 3 p.m. hearing, he smiled for the crowd of 60 people, some of whom were FBI agents who had been involved in this case since his Dec. 12, 2001, arrest.
Al-Marri has lost a bit of weight since arriving at Pekin’s federal prison and was taking pain medication for a hernia and for nerve damage he suffered while being held at the South Carolina naval brig.
He often chuckled and laughed with his attorneys during the 90-minute hearing. He did ask U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm if he could sit during the proceedings because it is uncomfortable for him to stand. The judge said that was OK.
As at his arraignment in March, al-Marri wore a white polo shirt, khaki pants and a white kufi, a head covering for religious Muslims.
His face quickly furrowed with concentration as a copy of the agreement was presented for his review. Mihm allowed a brief delay, which brought a “Thank you, judge,” from al-Marri. Finally, he nodded to Savage, and the hearing began.
“This wasn’t an armed robbery, this didn’t involve transportation of a motor vehicle. This was a case involving politics, diplomacy and a terrorist organization. This wasn’t an easy plea negotiations,” Savage said.
But for the most part, it was quiet as al-Marri responded to about 20 minutes worth of questioning from Mihm on the factual basis and then when Assistant U.S. Attorney David Risley read the government’s case to the judge.
Al-Marri was arrested in December 2001 as a material witness for a New York-based grand jury investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Within weeks, he was charged first in New York and then in Peoria’s federal court with credit card fraud and lying to the FBI.
Just as a judge here — by happenstance it was Mihm — was to hold a critical hearing, the government dropped all charges, declared al-Marri an “enemy combatant” and took him to the brig in South Carolina, where he has been held since July 2003.
He had been held there until February, when President Barack Obama ordered al-Marri released from military custody after a federal grand jury in Peoria indicted him.
One of the sections of al-Marri’s plea was a waiver of nearly all ways to appeal a conviction or sentence. There are a few minor exceptions, but for the most part, by agreeing to the plea, al-Marri gave up any way to back out of the deal.
The plea agreement also requires al-Marri not to contest any deportation efforts by the United States, though it left open the chance he could spend some of his prison term in Qatar if such an agreement could be worked out between the two countries.
At issue when al-Marri is sentenced, however, will likely be how much time, if any, he will get credit for having already served. He has been in custody, either civilian or military, since December 2001.
Larry Lustberg, another of his attorneys, said he will get credit for time in custody from December 2001 until June 2003. Left up for debate is whether the 5½ years spent in a naval brig in South Carolina will count.
Andy Kravetz can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.