Analysis: Freed former al Qaeda operative was part of intelligence dispute

Last month, Senator Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary of their final report investigating the CIA’s controversial detention and interrogation program. As part of their study, the Democrats compiled twenty case studies, which were intended to address claims made by the CIA regarding the efficacy of its interrogations.

One of those case studies focused on the identification and arrest of Ali Saleh Kahlah al Marri, who was freed from a US prison just days ago. Al Marri served as a “sleeper” operative for al Qaeda inside the US in 2001. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Former al Qaeda operative freed, sent home to Qatar.]

The dispute over the intelligence in al Marri’s case actually began years ago, when the CIA told the CIA’s Office of Inspector General, which was conducting its own review of the detention and interrogation program, that al Marri was first arrested based on intelligence gained from the program. Specifically, the CIA claimed that information given up by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, after his capture on March 1, 2003, led to al Marri’s arrest.

That wasn’t true. Al Marri was arrested in December 2001, more than one year before KSM explained al Marri’s al Qaeda’s role.

Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA for this obvious misrepresentation in the “Feinstein Report.” But the story becomes more complicated.

Al Marri was held in the US on civilian criminal charges, including identity and credit card fraud, until June 2003. At that point, the Bush administration suddenly labeled him an enemy combatant and removed him from the criminal justice system. What changed? KSM had explained al Marri’s full al Qaeda role.

On June 23, 2003, CBS News reported that al Marri had been deemed an enemy combatant. The account cited an unnamed Justice Department official as saying that Al Marri had been “positively identified” as an al Qaeda operative by an “al Qaeda detainee in a position to know.” The CBS News report went on to imply that this detainee was in fact KSM, who “has provided a wealth of information about the network’s presence in the United States.”

The CIA’s response to the Feinstein Report makes it clear that KSM was the source of this information on al Marri. The CIA conceded that it had “mistakenly provided incorrect information to the Inspector General” concerning the details of al Marri’s initial arrest. But the Agency went on to write: “With respect to the merits of this case, however, we would note that reporting from…[KSM] was responsible for clarifying the role that al-Marri – on whom we previously had no concrete information – played for al Qaeda as a sleeper operative in the US.”

A separate passage from the CIA’s response reads: “For instance, over three quarters of the intelligence reports that the FBI cited in a paper assessing the activities of US-based al Qaeda sleeper operative Salih al-Marri and explaining the reach of al Qaeda’s network in the US were sourced to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), our first and most important source of information on al-Marri’s role. Prior to KSM’s information, CIA and the FBI were aware of al-Marri’s links to al Qaeda but lacked the detail to more fully understand al Qaeda’s plans for him.”

The CIA stressed that prior to KSM’s testimony, both the CIA and the FBI were aware of al Marri’s “links” to al Qaeda and “strongly suspected him of having a nefarious objective.” But neither agency knew al Marri’s “specific role” until KSM revealed it.

“KSM during CIA debriefings in March 2003 identified a photograph of al-Marri as an individual whom he had ordered to travel to the US as a sleeper operative shortly before the 9/11 attacks,” the CIA’s response reads. “KSM claimed that he intended for al-Marri to help other al Qaeda operatives in the US prior to unspecified follow-on operations, to explore the possibility of hacking into US banks, and to receive funds for the 9/11 hijackers-all of which put into context the fragmentary information previously available.”

The Feinstein Report fires back against Langley, arguing that “[t]his representation is incongruent with CIA records.” The Senate Democrats cite the intelligence in the US government’s possession prior to KSM’s capture.

Before KSM was captured, they point out, the US intelligence community knew that al Marri had made “attempts to contact a telephone number associated with al Qaeda member and suspected 9/11 facilitator, Mustafa al-Hawsawi,” had “directly associated with KSM, as well as with al-Hawsawi,” and that al Marri’s brother “had travelled to Afghanistan in 2001 to join in jihad against the United States.”

In addition to these facts, the contents of al Marri’s laptop were highly suspicious. Al Marri had audio recordings of Osama bin Laden’s lectures, pictures glorifying the 9/11 attacks, and other al Qaeda-related propaganda.

All of this was, in fact, documented in a complaint filed against al Marri in December 2002. Some of the initial charges against al Marri included his lies to the FBI. For instance, al Marri denied that he had ever attempted to contact 9/11 financier and facilitator Mustafa al Hawsawi.

However, the Feinstein Report does not cite any intelligence indicating that authorities knew for a fact that al Marri was an al Qaeda sleeper agent prior to March 2003. Nor does the complaint against al Marri allege that he was a sleeper agent tasked by KSM with planning new attacks inside the US. This indicates that CIA and FBI had enough evidence to know that al Marri was no innocent, but they didn’t know exactly what he was doing.

KSM may very well have decided that because al Marri had been arrested more than one year before, there was no harm to al Qaeda’s operations in divulging al Marri’s true plans. When KSM was captured in March 2003, al Marri was already facing criminal charges that could have landed him in prison for years to come.

Note: The spelling of al Qaeda, including in the quotes cited, have been standardized throughout this article.

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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