Speaking at the American Academy at Berlin in Germany, Attorney General Eric Holder proudly cited the plea agreement of admitted al Qaeda sleeper operative Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri as an example of how terrorists can be tried in U.S. criminal courts.
“Al-Marri had been sitting in a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years facing no charges, without the prospect of either release or prosecution,” Holder said. “But in February, the Justice Department indicted him in federal court on two counts of providing and conspiring with others to provide material support to al-Qaeda.”
Al-Marri pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to the terrorist group, the Justice Department dropped the other charge. Sentencing is set for July 30; al-Marri faces up to 15 years more in imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, and a life term of “supervised release.”
“Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we as a nation still face,” said Holder in a statement. “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 the nation was founded and the rule of law.”
Not everyone heralded al-Marri’s plea as a victory, given that al-Marri could be released from prison as soon as 2016 if the judge rules to include time served within the 15 years. Former commander of the USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold, a fellow at Military Families United, said that the Obama administration is setting “an unacceptably low standard for holding terrorists accountable for their actions.”
“This dangerous terrorist will serve one-third of the jail time the law provides,” said Lippold in a statement. “Al-Marri will be receiving the same sentence as a person tried for identity theft or fraud even though he, reportedly met with Osama Bin Laden, was assigned to sabotage the U.S. financial system and possessed information on computer hacking, creating false drivers licenses and other false identification cards.”
Lippold argues that cases such as al-Marri’s should remain in the hands of the Pentagon and military commissions, lest “dangerous terrorists” be acquitted and freed.
Al-Marri, 43, a dual national of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, arrived in the U.S. on September 10, 2001.
Acting U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Lang said that al-Marri was sent by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the U.S. to commit acts of terrorism, after having been trained in various terrorist training camps since 1998. Mohammed directed al-Marri to meet with Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a primary financier of the 9/11 attacks, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where al-Hawsawi gave him $10,000.
On email — Mohammed was HOR70@hotmail.com, al-Marri was firstname.lastname@example.org –- the two communicated. Mohammed also gave al-Marri contact information for several al-Qaeda associates, and an established a pre-arranged code, where al-Marri called Mohammad “Muk” and referred to himself as “Abdo.” Al-Marri applied for a student visa at Bradley University.
From Sept. 23, 2001 until his arrest Nov. 4, 2001, al-Marri tried to reach al-Hawsawi and other al-Qaeda operatives, but he was unable to. He conducted online research of various cyanide compounds. An almanac recovered in his residence was bookmarked at pages showing dams, waterways and tunnels in the U.S. He was arrested in December 2001 on a material witness warrant issued in connection with the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
How to deal with the roughly 250 detainees who remain in Guantanamo Bay was raised yesterday during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates said military commissions “are very much still on the table.”
“The question really is, what are we going to do with those that cannot be returned home either because we fear that … they won’t be monitored or kept under watch, or we worry that they’ll be persecuted when they go home?” Gates said, citing the 17 Muslim Chinese called Uighurs, some of whom may be released in the U.S., though Gates wasn’t sure if a final decision has been made.
“What I have heard people talking about is our taking some of the Uighurs — probably not all –because it’s difficult for the State Department to make the argument to other countries they should take these people that we have deemed in this case not to be dangerous if we won’t take any of them ourselves,” Gates said.
Indeed, Holder told European officials that “to close Guantanamo, we must all make sacrifices and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices. The United States is ready to do its part, and we hope that Europe will join us –- not out of a sense of responsibility, but from a commitment to work with one of its oldest allies to confront one of the world’s most pressing challenges.”
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble indicated they would take the matter under consideration.
Gates said the biggest issue remains “what do we do with the 50 to 100 — probably in that ballpark — who we cannot release and cannot trust, either in Article 3 courts or Military Commissions. And I think that question is still open.”