Al Qaeda sleeper agent sentenced to eight years in prison

Ali Saleh Al-Marri, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda, could have got 15 years. But the federal judge took into account the almost six years he was held without charge as an enemy combatant in a military prison.

David Zalaznik/Peoria Journal Star/AP
Attorney Andy Savage, left, approaches the US District Courthouse in Peoria, Ill. with the rest of the defense team Wednesday, for the sentencing hearing of their client, Ali Saleh Al-Marri. Al-Marri faces a possible maximum sentence of 15 years for providing material support to Al-Qaeda.
David Zalaznik / Peoria Journal Star / AP / File
Ali Saleh Al-Marri, shown in an undated photo.

An admitted Al Qaeda sleeper agent who arrived in the US one day before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison on Thursday.

Ali Saleh Al-Marri of Qatar and Saudi Arabia had faced up to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty in April to a single count of conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda.

During a two-day sentencing hearing in federal court in Peoria, Ill., Mr. Al-Marri's lawyers urged US District Judge Michael Mihm to hand down a lighter sentence in recognition that Al-Marri had been held without charge as an enemy combatant for more than six years in a military prison. They said he had been subjected to periods of extreme isolation and deprivation as part of a military interrogation plan to force him to confess his involvement with Al Qaeda.

Al-Marri was one of three individuals held at the US Naval brig at Charleston, S.C., under controversial circumstances. All three were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics.

Lawyers had been fighting for years to get Al-Marri's case before the US Supreme Court. They argued that his open-ended detention without charge was illegal and unconstitutional. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but before the arguments could be made the government and Al-Marri's lawyers agreed to a plea bargain.

Under the terms of the agreement, Al-Marri agreed to admit to involvement with Al Qaeda and the government agreed to limit his potential prison time to 15 years.

Without the plea bargain, Al-Marri would have faced a suggested guidelines' sentence of 30 years to life in prison.

Approached by Al Qaeda

The plea agreement says that between 1998 and 2001 Al-Marri attended "terrorist training camps because he wished to engage in jihad." He received basic military training and was instructed how to avoid detection and communicate through codes.

In 2001, Al-Marri was approached by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's operations chief who has since admitted to being the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Mohammed asked Al-Marri to assist Al Qaeda operations in the US, the plea agreement says.

"The defendant was instructed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to enter the United States no later than September 10, 2001, with an understanding that he was to remain in the United States for an undetermined length of time," the plea agreement says.

Al-Marri registered for graduate classes at Bradley University in Peoria and arrived with his wife and five children. The government said the classes and family were designed to throw federal agents off his trail.

Nonetheless, he was arrested in December 2001 and held behind bars in the criminal justice system until 2003. That's when he was designated an enemy combatant by President Bush and taken to an isolation wing at the naval brig.

Transformed by military prison?

At his sentencing hearing, government lawyers sought to portray Al-Marri as a loyal and dangerous member of Al Qaeda. A military psychologist who interviewed him during his time in the brig testified that she believed Al-Marri would fight against the US if released from prison.

Al-Marri's lawyers countered that their client had undergone a significant transformation during his military confinement.

"A picture emerges of a person who, rather than being hardened by hatred or motivated by anger, violence, or retribution, is humbled, already severely punished, and still bears the psychological and emotional scars of years of brutal treatment and stark isolation," wrote Lawrence Lustberg, one of Al-Marri's lawyers, in his sentencing brief. Mr. Lustberg said his client is "extremely grateful to those who have treated him humanely."

Near the conclusion of the two-day hearing, Al-Marri delivered tearful testimony, telling Judge Mihm that he was sorry he ever agreed to help Al Qaeda and that he was glad his actions never led to any harm, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

The judge told Al-Marri that he didn't believe he'd renounced his Al Qaeda loyalty, but that he deserved credit for his detention in the brig, the AP reported.

Of the two other men once detained at the South Carolina brig, one, Yaser Hamdi, has returned home to Saudi Arabia a free man. The second, Jose Padilla, stood trial in Miami and is now serving a 17-year prison sentence for a material support conviction. Mr. Padilla's case is under appeal.

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