Accused Al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri on Thursday pleaded guilty to supporting the architects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In a plea agreement entered before U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm in Peoria, Ill., Marri admitted to one count of conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. He spoke softly and smiled occasionally as Mihm read aloud a timeline that described Marri’s attendance at terrorist training camps in Pakistan and his research into cyanide compounds and other chemical agents.
“Ali al-Marri today admitted that he came here . . . as an Al Qaeda operative the day before the Sept. 11 attacks to plan and prepare for future acts of terrorism within the United States,” said Jeffrey Lang, acting U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
A native of Qatar, Marri was attending Bradley University in Peoria on a student visa when he was arrested in December 2001 on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI.
The Bush administration declared him an “enemy combatant” and held him without charges for more than five years at a Navy brig in South Carolina.
The designation was dropped this year when Marri, 43, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Illinois.
Appearing Thursday in khaki pants, a plain white shirt and white kufi hat, Marri admitted to having associations with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind, and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, chief financier of the attacks, before arriving in the U.S. on Sept. 10, 2001.
While training at several terrorist camps in Pakistan, Marri’s plea agreement stated, he became an expert with military weapons, he learned to conceal his identity online and he used his computer to research chemical agents that could be used in an attack.
Marri’s laptop held research on various cyanide compounds, their toxicity levels and where they could be bought, U.S. attorneys found. Authorities also recovered from his house an almanac with pages bookmarked showing U.S. bridges, roads and waterways.
In authorizing the plea agreement, the Obama administration was seeking to put behind it a controversial and legally troublesome terrorism case that began under President Bush.
“Good riddance. The sooner the better,” said one career Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity Thursday because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
That official and others said the case was becoming a quagmire for federal prosecutors, given the complicated issues involved -- such as how to bring into court all of the classified evidence to be used against Marri.
Defense lawyers were gearing up to challenge the admissibility of much of that evidence, including statements that they said Marri had made under duress or even torture. They alleged in court documents that he was subjected to inhumane, degrading, and physically and psychologically abusive treatment.
On Thursday, defense attorney Lawrence Lustberg said Marri’s time in the brig was exceedingly difficult and at times “crossed the line into torture.”
Legal experts have been monitoring the case as a bellwether of how the Obama administration will handle a broader array of detainee issues.
This year the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Marri’s case and decide whether the government can arrest a civilian in the United States and hold him in military custody, without filing charges or giving him a trial.
But soon after President Obama took office, the government pulled Marri out of the military brig and opted to charge him in federal court instead.
For much of his time in the military brig, Marri was the only “enemy combatant” held on U.S. soil.
Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor who was a State Department and Pentagon official during the Bush administration, said the plea agreement was probably the best option.
“The Obama administration inherited a tough dilemma: On the one hand, it wants to distance itself from controversial Bush administration positions. But on the other hand it wants to preserve options and executive powers,” said Waxman, who played a role in detainee affairs while at the Pentagon. “Given the history of this case, the administration didn’t want to litigate it, and courts will be happy to be rid of it.”
By reaching a plea agreement, said Marjorie Cohn, a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and president of the National Lawyers Guild, “the Obama administration avoids a lengthy trial where invariably evidence of torture would come out, and that would put even more pressure on the administration to have investigations and prosecutions. It was done for expediency’s sake.”
The charge against Marri carries up to 15 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for July 30.
He is seeking to serve his time in Qatar.
David G. Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.