Alleged Al Qaeda Sleeper Agent in U.S. Pleads Guilty

Last 'Enemy Combatant' Held on U.S. Soil Pleads to Terrorism Charges

April 30, 2009, 9:56 AM

April 30, 2009— -- The man known for nearly six years as the last "enemy combatant" held on U.S. soil has pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism.

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, dubbed an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration, entered his plea Thursday before a U.S. district judge in Peoria, Ill. He admitted to one count of conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. Sentencing is set for July 30.

Al-Marri was held without charges at the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., from 2003 until a federal grand jury indicted him in February.

The indictment on two counts of allegedly providing material support to al Qaeda paved the way for his release from military custody into the U.S. criminal justice system.

Al-Marri's transfer from military custody marked a dramatic shift from the Bush administration's stance that the United States could indefinitely detain terror suspects caught here without filing charges. Additionally, the Obama administration has dropped the use of the term "enemy combatant" to describe al-Marri and other terror suspects.

The indictment "shows our resolve to protect the American people and prosecute alleged terrorists to the full extent of the law," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement at the time of al-Marri's indictment.

"In this administration," he continued, "we will hold accountable anyone who attempts to do harm to Americans, and we will do so in a manner consistent with our values."

The two-page indictment lacks specific details of al-Marri's alleged support to al Qaeda, but the Justice Department has said that it intends to introduce more evidence and prove its case at trial.

One day before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Marri and his family legally entered the United States so he could begin a master's degree program at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. He received a bachelor's degree from the same school in 1991.

The U.S. government alleged that he repeatedly attempted to contact an al Qaeda leader suspected of financing the Sept. 11 attacks as part of his alleged involvement as a "sleeper agent," lying in wait to take part in a suspected second-wave attack.

Al-Marri has maintained that he is innocent.

"He understands the charges against him," and looked forward to the move to civilian custody, Andy Savage, his criminal defense attorney, told ABC News earlier this year. "He's looking forward to addressing the allegations against him."

Al-Marri: 'Enemy Combatant' Ringleader?

At the time of al-Marri's arrest, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft compared him to Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the group of hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

The government's argument at the time was that the priority was to get information out of al-Marri about potential upcoming terrorist plots, as opposed to trying him for alleged crimes.

Al-Marri, who is a dual citizen of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has been in U.S. custody since his December 2001 arrest and was transferred to the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., in 2003, after President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

Bush signed an executive order declaring that al-Marri was "closely associated" with al Qaeda and had "engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and warlike acts."

The Justice Department had previously charged al-Marri with credit card fraud, false statements and identity fraud, but the government dropped those charges before his transfer to the Navy brig.

After the Justice Department secured the February indictment against al-Marri, President Obama directed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to transfer him to federal custody.

Al-Marri had challenged his detention without charges, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case this spring. But when the case moved into the criminal justice system, the Justice Department petitioned the high court to drop the case, deeming al-Marri's argument moot as he was no longer being held without charge. The Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the case in March.

'Without Charge or Trial'

Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney for al-Marri, noted in a statement that the indictment "represents an important step toward restoring the rule of law," but he opposed the Justice Department's request to drop the Supreme Court case because it would leave the issue undetermined for future cases.

"The government has still not renounced the legal authority that led to Mr. al-Marri's detention in military custody for more than six years without charge or trial," Hafetz said in the March statement. "The Court should make clear that there is no legal authority for the president to deprive individuals living in the United States of their most basic constitutional rights by declaring them 'enemy combatants.'"

The ACLU claims that while in custody at the Charleston naval brig, the U.S. government held al-Marri incommunicado for more than a year and subjected him to torture and other abuses.

Court records filed that challenged al-Marri's military custody indicate that there were videotapes of the interrogations at the brig, but the Defense Department has declined to release any tapes to al-Marri's lawyers or to the public.

The move to charge al-Marri was widely expected in the legal community, in part because of the unique and narrow aspects of his case, as he was the only legal resident alien in detention in the United States without charges against him.

In a story in The New Yorker published earlier this year, al-Marri said through his lawyers that he is "not asking to be taken at my word and to be released, although I very much want to go home to my family."

He said he wanted "to be treated like every other person in the United States who is accused of a crime, including terrorism, and to be given a fair trial in an American court."

ABC News' Jan Crawford Greenburg and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.