Sleeper Agent

This article was originally published at The Weekly Standard.

Ali Saleh Khalah al Marri.

As one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama ordered his new cabinet to review the case of Ali Saleh Khalah al Marri, the only “enemy combatant” held in the continental United States. On Thursday, January 22, President Obama ordered his executive branch to undertake “a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al Marri’s continued detention, and identify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions.”

Al Marri’s case has long been a source of controversy. Human rights groups and critics of the Bush administration charge that he is held illegally, and that he should be prosecuted in a federal court. The Bush administration countered that al Marri was a plotting al Qaeda operative who could be held indefinitely until the end of the “war on terror.” Al Marri’s status has been repeatedly challenged in the U.S. courts, with the critics winning some rounds and the Bush administration others. Obama’s order means that his cabinet members and their attending departments will now have to determine what, if anything, to do with al Marri, who is currently being held at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Beyond the legal wrangling, however, there are some important angles to al Marri’s story that Obama’s cabinet should explore. First, and foremost, al Marri’s case underscores the gravity of the terrorist threat, including the depth of deception al Qaeda employs in its attempts to kill Americans. Second, al Marri’s story sheds light on how the Bush administration utilized “enhanced” interrogation techniques to uncover the details of al Qaeda’s plotting.

Al Marri lived in the United States for several years, receiving his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bradley University in 1991. He then left the United States and, according to declassified files released by the government, eventually found his way to Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. Between 1996 and 1998, he was allegedly trained on various terrorist methods, including the use of poisons.

In the summer of 2001, the government claims, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) introduced al Marri to Osama bin Laden. Shortly thereafter, al Marri began receiving financial assistance from Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi, one of KSM’s chief lieutenants for the September 11 operation. In August of 2001, at the behest of KSM, Hawsawi allegedly gave al Marri upwards of $16,000 for a laptop computer and other expenses. Then, on September 10, 2001, al Marri flew back to the United States, claiming that he wanted to receive a graduate degree in computer sciences from Bradley.

The U.S. government believes that al Marri’s story about wanting to receive a graduate degree was a ruse. In a declaration that was written in September of 2004 and declassified in 2006, Jeffrey N. Rapp, the Director of the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, noted that al Marri rarely attended classes and was in a “failing status” by December 2001. Al Marri most likely had other things on his mind. Rapp wrote that al Marri had volunteered for a martyrdom mission during his meeting with bin Laden.

The government believes that al Marri’s mission in the United States was two-fold. He was to investigate the possibility of launching a cyber attack against the U.S. banking industry and other targets, as well as act “as a point of contact for al Qaeda operatives arriving in the United States.” However, al Marri did not have the opportunity to execute any of the alleged plots. He was detained in December of 2001.

Federal authorities also captured Al Marri’s laptop, which contained numerous pieces of incriminating information in addition to various jihadist lectures given by Osama bin Laden. Al Marri had been doing extensive research on chemical weapons, as evidenced by numerous links to web sites containing information on hydrogen cyanide and other poisons. His laptop pointed authorities to “draft” emails that were written in English and saved in several accounts. Al Qaeda agents have exchanged information using publicly-registered email accounts. Instead of sending the emails, and risking that they are intercepted, a second or third operative can log into the same account, thereby accessing vital information in a draft email.

The emails from al Marri were addressed to an account that has been linked to KSM. And the government believes they contained coded information, including al Marri’s stateside cell phone number.

Authorities also discovered that al Marri had, on multiple occasions, called a telephone number associated with Hawsawi in the United Arab Emirates. September 11 plotters Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Atta called the same number to contact Hawsawi. In addition, according to Rapp, al Marri’s laptop contained files with “over 1,000 apparent credit card numbers” along with various files related to computer hacking. Al Marri allegedly intended to use the credit cards in a scam against the airline industry.

Although al Marri was originally detained in December of 2001 as a material witness in the September 11 attacks, he was later charged with credit card fraud and related charges. He was to be tried in a federal court before the Bush administration had the court drop the charges against him. On June 23, 2003, President Bush designated al Marri an enemy combatant and he was transferred to military custody. He has been at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston ever since.

Between al Marri’s initial capture and his transfer to military custody, the Bush administration filled in the gaps in al Marri’s story with the help of its most important detainee: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And it is because of KSM’s coerced testimony that al Marri’s detention became especially controversial.

KSM was arrested in early 2003 and detained at the CIA’s so-called black sites, the formerly secret terrorist detention facilities. His interrogators used various techniques, including waterboarding, during questioning. At some point, KSM gave up the details concerning al Marri’s missions in the United States.

In his declaration, Mr. Rapp cited some pieces of intelligence that most likely came from the interrogation of KSM. Rapp noted that KSM thought al Marri was the “ideal sleeper agent.” Al Marri received his undergraduate degree in the United States, had no criminal record, and even returned to America with his wife and kids. No one would expect a good family man to be al Qaeda’s point man for post-9/11 attacks in the United States.

Still more details about al Marri came from Mohammed al Kahtani, who was also subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Kahtani was supposed to take part in the September 11 attacks but failed to gain entry into the United States when a suspicious immigration official at the Orlando Airport turned him away. Kahtani was later detained in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantanamo. There, Kahtani was detained alongside al Marri’s brother, who admitted he attended an al Qaeda training camp in 2001. The U.S. government initially did not know who Kahtani was. He resisted multiple interrogation techniques. After discovering that his fingerprint matched that of a would-be immigrant who was deported from Orlando, his full story was pieced together by the FBI and the CIA. Kahtani was, at some point, also subjected to harsh interrogation methods.

According to The New York Times, Kahtani told his interrogators that he had a relative living in the Chicago area. That relative turned out to be al Marri.

With respect to al Marri, the Obama administration now faces several questions.

Will he be prosecuted in a federal court? If so, what evidence will be used against him?

Critics argue that the evidence against al Marri is tainted. But as Rapp noted in his declaration, the evidence against al Marri comes from “multiple intelligence sources,” including his captured laptop. It is difficult to believe that al Marri could not be tried on that evidence. In fact, some press accounts have noted that al Marri could have received a lengthy prison sentence on the basis of his credit card scheming alone.

Were the enhanced interrogation techniques used on KSM necessary to extract information about al Marri? Are the techniques Obama has authorized sufficient?

Waterboarding and related techniques have been roundly denounced by Obama and his supporters. That is understandable in many respects. On the same day that President Obama tasked his cabinet with investigating al Marri’s case, he also limited the interrogation techniques that can be used on terrorist suspects to those found in the Army Field Manual. But it appears that the controversial techniques used on KSM allowed interrogators to learn more about al Marri’s role in al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plotting. The techniques were employed to elicit important intelligence to stop terrorist attacks, and not to build a criminal case. In the future, the CIA and military will undoubtedly have the need to learn similar details from other important al Qaeda operatives. The Obama administration will need to determine if the techniques included in the Army Field Manual are sufficient for extracting valuable information from high-level operatives such as KSM.

The new president has a number of tough decisions to make in the months ahead.

His first executive orders have only scratched the surface of the dilemmas he faces.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Rosario says:

    Hello Thomas,
    Thanks for writing this informative article. You didn’t say if Marri is a citizen, I am assuming he had a student visa. This is indeed an interesting case since our chief executive is also constitutional attorney. In WWII spies tried and were hanged, the same with Rosenburg’s in the 1950’s so there is plenty of legal historical precedent on how to deal with people like this. In this case we have a suspect with links to a conspiracy to the largest mass murder in US history. Even if evidence from “torture” is excluded and he is only 1% culpable – that still equates to three dead citizens. This is a great test for competency for the “new” justice department and the Obama administration.

  • flyonthewall says:

    I can’t help but fear that our justice system, whether new or old, is no match for the diabolical tactics of AlQ and T’ban. The thought of bringing Gitmo “detainees” to US prisons makes me wonder whether we’re a laughing stock. . .i.e FORCING terrorists onto US soil. How much will each of us spend on their defense? And if they’re convicted and sent to US prisons, they’ll have a “captured” audience for breeding their hatred. How far fetched would it be to foresee terrorist attacks on prisons releasing congealed cells of evil on US soil? I’m wondering whether the only hope of justice lies in releasing them to their host countries where they’ll either meet another culture’s “justice” or be fair game for military might. (are implanted tracking devices right up there with waterboarding?) Just can’t feel confident in our old or new justice system.

  • TLA says:

    What did the whatever they call the FSB now just do to that defected KGB agent? Some sort of radition poisoning via a drink? Surely the Guantanamo detainees could have a swig of that before they get shipped back to their home countries? I think it took a while to kill the KGB guy….


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