Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Ali al-Marri Story

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri has been deported to Qatar after spending 13 years in a US Navy brig and a federal prison for being an al-Qaeda agent and providing material support to terrorists.
But the full story about the al-Marri case reveals the failure of the Bush Administration’s approach to terrorism. I've been reporting on the al-Marri case for more than a decade. Torture and the violation of Constitutional rights didn’t work. But al-Marri was not some innocent victim. Al-Marri has expressed regret for working with al-Qaeda, but it’s not clear that he has abandoned his terrorist past. As a computer expert, al-Marri could pose a danger anywhere.
The incompetence began when al-Marri was facing trial for fraud in 2003 in Peoria. There’s no doubt that he was guilty, and would have been found guilty. But the Bush Administration wanted al-Marri to reveal information about al-Qaeda. So they decided to name him an "enemy combatant" in order to have full control over him and perhaps use their "enhanced interrogation" techniques. In fact, the Bush Administration was so anxious to have al-Marri as an "enemy combatant" that they agreed to drop the fraud charges "with prejudice," meaning that he could never be charged with them again. Reports indicate that the Bush Administration never got any worthwhile information from al-Marri; the "enemy combatant" designation was an utter failure.
This was the first major error of the Bush Administration. If al-Marri had been convicted on fraud, the years he spent in prison for that would not be deducted from his 15-year sentence. In essence, by naming al-Marri an "enemy combatant," the Bush Administration ended up reducing his time in prison.
The second major mistake of the Bush Administration was the torture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. By torturing Mohammed rather than using normal interrogation techniques, the Bush Administration made all of the evidence he provided inadmissible in any court. If the more reliable and effective interrogation techniques that reject torture had been used, prosecutors would have been able to tie al-Marri directly to terrorism.
The problem for prosecutors today is that al-Marri had never been an operational terrorist, and although he was an al-Qaeda agent, he was sent as a sleeper agent to the US to coordinate al-Qaeda’s follow-up operatives arriving after 9-11, operatives who never arrived due to the global crackdown on al-Qaeda. Without Mohammed’s evidence and without the fraud evidence that the Bush Administration had tainted and dismissed with prejudice, prosecutors were in a very difficult position to prove that al-Marri had done anything illegal.
That’s why they felt forced to agree to a relatively short sentence that just ended. Once again, we’re all paying the price for the failures of the Bush Administration.
Al-Marri came to Peoria with his wife and five children on Sept. 10, 2001 to enroll as a graduate student in computer science at Bradley University (which he had attended as an undergraduate two decades earlier). While the government portrays al-Marri as a key al-Qaeda figure in America, he is also the center of a fight over whether civil liberties will be sacrificed to fight the “war on terrorism.” On June 23, 2003, George W. Bush designated al-Marri as the third “enemy combatant” in America, depriving him of all legal rights.
While evidence of al-Marri’s involvement in illegal and perhaps terrorist activities has steadily accumulated, so too did the fact that the government is violating his constitutional rights with little justification. The Bush Administration’s efforts to deny al-Marri his rights have done nothing to protect America from terrorism, and its mishandling of the al-Marri case could eventually allow him to go free.
When the FBI first questioned al-Marri, at his apartment in West Peoria on Oct. 2, 2001, it was based on a police stop where al-Marri was found to have a briefcase full of cash (Al-Marri reportedly received over $13,000 in cash from Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the financier who bankrolled the September 11th attacks).
A tip from a US Cellular salesman worried about al-Marri’s cell phone calls to the Middle East may also have led to a deeper investigation. Because his enrollment forms at Bradley had listed two different birthdates, the FBI paid a visit to al-Marri. FBI agents continued to investigate al-Marri, and on Dec. 11, 2001, visited his home again.
They say al-Marri gave them permission to search his apartment and his laptop.
On al-Marri’s laptop, FBI computer experts found files with more than 1,750 credit card numbers, along with bookmarked websites about computer hacking, credit card fraud, buying hazardous chemicals, and making fake driver’s licenses. Al-Marri’s computer also included proxy software used to conceal identity on the internet, and hacker programs used to gather information about other people’s computers.
Al-Marri’s laptop also indicated his support of bin Laden, including an Arabic prayer that “Neither the U.S. nor anyone living in it will dream of security/safety before we live it in Palestine and before the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed,” and that God should “protect” and “guard” Usama bin Laden. The laptop also included audio files of lectures by bin Laden, lectures advising how to train in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, photos of the 9-11 attacks and of prisoners held in Kabul, and a note in Arabic declaring: “Neither the U.S. nor anyone living in it will dream of security/safety before we live it in Palestine and before the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed.”
On Dec. 12, al-Marri returned to the FBI offices, but this time he asked for a lawyer, and refused to take a polygraph test. Agents confronted him with a list of 36 expired credit cards numbers on two sheets of paper in his laptop’s carrying case, a list that included the owners’ names and expiration dates. Al-Marri claimed that the handwriting on the sheets wasn’t his, and said he knew nothing about them. On orders from the New York City offices, federal agents arrested al-Marri that afternoon as a “material witness.” After a few weeks in the Peoria County Jail, al-Marri was flown to New York and put in the Special Housing Unit at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
On Dec. 14, 2001, FBI agents got a search warrant for al-Marri’s apartment, and found an almanac with business cards used to mark pages showing U.S. dams, reservoirs, waterways and railroads. They also found an Arabic prayer calling for the defeat of the “villainous” Christians and Jews in Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Chechnya.
The Credit Card Scheme
On Jan. 28, 2002, al-Marri was arrested and charged with unauthorized possession of “more than 15” access devices — the credit-card numbers — with the intent to defraud. He was indicted on the charge Feb. 6, 2002. After al-Marri and his attorneys decided that Manhattan was a bad place for a terrorism suspect to go on trial, they asked for the venue to be moved back to central Illinois, where the alleged crimes had taken place, so the government dropped the charges in New York and re-filed them in Peoria.
In the summer of 2000, al-Marri came to central Illinois and created a fake company, AAA Carpets, in room 209 at the Time Out Motel in Macomb, Il., using the name Abdullakareem A. Almuslam. Western Illinois University student Matt Stiles, who hooked up a high-speed internet connection for al-Marri, told the Chicago Tribune, “He said it was very important that he have fast Internet service.” According to Stiles, “All I know is he sat around and was on the Internet all day.”
Al-Marri used a false name and stolen Social Security number to open accounts at three banks in Macomb, and opened a credit card processing account. Using stolen credit card numbers, al-Marri processed fake transactions, and then moved the money out before the credit card companies and banks figured out the fraud.
Although al-Marri denied the allegations, the evidence against him seemed overwhelming. Six of the stolen credit card numbers used by “Almuslam” were later found on al-Marri’s laptop. A witness in Macomb picked al-Marri out of a photo line-up as the man calling himself “Almuslam.” Fingerprints on the “Almuslam” bank documents in Macomb matched al-Marri. Airline records show that an Ali S. al-Marri took a flight from Saudi Arabia to Frankfurt and then O’Hare on May 25-26, 2000.
The summer “Almuslam” was in Macomb, he made a call to a travel agency, arranging for a flight by a man named Ali al-Marri, who took a flight from Peoria to Chicago and then New York on Aug. 18, 2000, and then returned the next day, missing the connection to Peoria. Al-Marri soon left the country, and flew from Frankfurt back to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 21, 2000.
But the Macomb evidence proves that al-Marri was a criminal, not necessarily a terrorist. In January 2003, federal prosecutor Michael McGovern told a judge that al-Marri had used credit card fraud to provide “material support” to al-Qaeda, but no evidence of this has ever been publicly produced.
The Al-Qaeda Phone Number
In addition to the fraud charges, al-Marri was also charged with two counts of lying to federal agents. The government accused al-Marri of falsely denying that he called a phone in the United Arab Emirates, and of falsely claiming that he hadn’t been in the country in 2000 when the credit card fraud was perpetrated.
On four occasions in 2001, al-Marri tried (unsuccessfully) to call a number in United Arab Emirates using public pay phones in Illinois. On Sept. 23, a call was made from a store in Peoria near his apartment, using a phone card that was also used on al-Marri’s cell phone on Sept. 27 and his home phone on Oct. 24. On Oct. 14, the same number was called around 2am using the same phone card from a gas station in Springfield; around the same time, al-Marri’s cell phone was used near Springfield. On Nov. 4, the number was called twice from pay phones in Chicago, using a second phone card; that same phone card was used three days later from al-Marri’s home phone.
The FBI was suspicious of the phone number because it was used on Sept. 3, 2001 by Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh to transfer money to Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” for the 9-11 attacks. The phone number was also listed by al-Qaeda financier, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi (arrested in Pakistan on March 1, 2003 along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed). Al-Hawsawi, who is accused of sending money to the 9-11 hijackers, listed the number on a withdrawal slip from a United Arab Emirates (UAE) bank.
The number was also called by 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, who listed the phone number when he sent a Fed Ex package to the UAE on Sept. 4, 2001. The 9-11 hijackers returned leftover money to the account opened by al-Hawsawi shortly before the attacks. The phone number was also used in the transfer of money to Ramzi Muhammad Abdullah bin al-Shibh, whom American officials believe was intended to be another 9-11 hijacker. But when questioned by the FBI about it, al-Marri denied calling the phone number or knowing al-Hawsawi. On Dec. 23, 2002, al-Marri was charged with making false statements to the FBI denying that he called the number.
The Enemy Combatant
While al-Marri was awaiting his trial, the US got a lucky break in capturing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the global leader of al-Qaeda operations, on March 1, 2003. Under torture (including waterboarding), Mohammed revealed some information about the al-Qaeda network, and named al-Marri as “the point of contact for AQ operatives arriving in the US for September 11 follow-up operations.” Newsweek claimed that Mohammed described al-Marri as “the perfect sleeper agent because he has studied in the United States, had no criminal record and had a family with whom he could travel.”
But one Newsweek reporter admitted to a Peoria Journal-Star columnist there wasn’t evidence of contact with other al-Qaeda operatives. “That’s the mystery here,” reporter Daniel Klaidman said. “If he was the main contact, we probably would’ve seen more evidence of him talking to others.” Because some of the information linking al-Marri to terrorism was acquired using torture, it’s unreliable and cannot be allowed in a court of law.
According to the government, al-Marri trained at al-Qaeda’s al Farooq camp in Afghanistan, including training in chemical weapons, and pledged service to Osama bin Laden, offering himself for a “martyrdom” mission. Some detainees reportedly identified al-Marri as being at the al-Farooq camp, and said that he offered to die for al-Qaeda. With this additional information, the Bush Administration decided to name al-Marri an enemy combatant–even though he was arrested on American soil, and has never been accused of carrying out any acts of violence.
Bush’s June 23, 2003 order declared that “al-Marri engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism,” and he “represents a continuing, present and grave danger to the national security of the United States.” The order claimed that the enemy combatant designation was “necessary to prevent him from aiding al-Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States or its armed forces, other government personnel, or citizens.”
The Defense Department said al-Marri’s status was changed ‘‘due to recent credible information provided by other detainees in the war on terrorism. Enemy combatant status may be used to describe an individual who, under the laws and customs of war, has become a member of or associated himself with hostile enemy forces, thereby attaining the status of a belligerent.’’
This doesn’t describe al-Marri at all, even if the worst accusations against him are true. First of all, there is no declared war with al-Qaeda, because al-Qaeda is a terrorist group, not an enemy nation. Second, al-Marri’s alleged membership in the group is tenuous at best. Third, al-Marri was never a belligerent of any kind. A statement from Human Rights Watch charged, “The United States cannot declare a criminal suspect, including a suspected member of al-Qaida, an enemy combatant, except where there has been direct participation in an international armed conflict.”
Jan Paul Miller, federal prosecutor for central Illinois, filed to dismiss the criminal case without prejudice—meaning that the government could later reinstate the charges. And the judge seemed willing to support that ruling, but wanted to give defense attorneys time to prepare a response. However, the government was under orders to get al-Marri into military custody immediately, and rather than have a few hours delay for a response by al-Marri’s attorneys, they agreed to dismiss the charges with prejudice, which means al-Marri can never be prosecuted for his acts of credit card fraud and lying. This critical decision may come back to haunt the government now that al-Marri’s enemy combatant status is overturned.
The fact that al-Marri was already in jail awaiting trial on fraud charges made the sudden rush by the Bush Administration even more puzzling. Alice Fisher, deputy assistant attorney general, told the media, “We are confident we would have prevailed,” but dropped the charges in order to help fight terrorism. Fisher has admitted that investigators do not believe that al-Marri was “specifically tasked” to plot a chemical or biological attack in the United States. Instead, Newsweek reports that government officials believe al-Marri was assigned to hack into the computer systems of U.S. banks. Al-Marri also frequently visited websites on the production of hydrogen cyanide, a lethal gas that al-Qaeda plotted to use in America. Given al-Marri’s suspected role, why was it necessary to shift the case to military tribunals, which cannot rule on the dismissed charges of fraud and lying?
According to an ABC News report, al-Marri was made an “enemy combatant” because “the government does not want senior al-Qaeda leaders testifying about classified information in open court.” Yet this explanation is not plausible, since the fraud charges against al-Marri wouldn’t have required any classified information. Classified information might come out only if terrorism charges were filed against him, but it’s doubtful that evidence acquired more than five years ago would seriously undermine the war on terror.
Putting the Pressure on al-Marri
The real reason for “enemy combatant” status was revealed anonymously to journalists. United Press International reported that a Justice Department official said “that the actual reason for the change in status was to pressure him to cooperate.” According to the anonymous official, “If the guy says ‘Even if you give me 30 years in jail, I’ll never help you.’ Then you can always threaten him with indefinite custody incommunicado from his family or attorneys.” Attorney General John Ashcroft declared, “An individual with that kind of situation is an individual who might know a lot about what could happen, might know the names of individuals, information being so key to intelligence and prevention.”
On May 7, 2003, federal prosecutor David Kelley, according to al-Marri’s attorney, threatened al-Marri that if he continued a plea of innocence, “the circumstances of his confinement, which were already severe, would be further aggravated.” For years, al-Marri was kept in solitary confinement, and reportedly also had his family threatened by the government in an effort to get him to talk.
Even if al-Marri didn’t confess under this “pressure,” the government hoped that making al-Marri an “enemy combatant” might give a lesson to al-Qaeda supporters who were reluctant to cooperate. CNN reported that “senior FBI official” said the al-Marri case had implications for other terrorism suspects: “If I were in their shoes, I’d take a message from this.”
Frank Dunham, a defense attorney representing Zacarias Moussaoui and Yassir Hamdi, called this a significant admission: “In front of appeals courts, they have argued that enemy combatant status prevents the horror of having corporals and sergeants having to follow Miranda warnings and chain-evidence requirements. They have also argued for the national security implications of allowing it. But never a frank admission that it offers them more leverage in plea bargains and cooperation.”
When Constitutional rights are abandoned solely for the sake of intimidating prisoners, it indicates a serious threat to civil liberties. As Emily Tynes of the ACLU observes, “The Department of Justice’s treatment of al-Marri reads like a case study in abuse of power.” Tynes notes, “He will be held in a military brig indefinitely, without opportunity for trial, without the opportunity for counsel, without access to the outside world or even, necessarily, sunshine. He now has no rights. He now has no privileges. He is persona non grata.”
Unfortunately, few people were concerned about the violations of civil liberties in the al-Marri case. Then-Congressman Ray LaHood (who became a member of Obama’s cabinet) told WGLT about the al-Marri case at the time: “I guarantee you, if these folks get lawyers, they will have their day in court.” LaHood claimed, “I don’t see too many crocodile tears being spread around this country for these people. I guarantee you, there’s enough civil liberties groups to look after their interests.” LaHood may have been unaware of the fact that an “enemy combatant” is denied the constitutional right to a lawyer.
Former judge Andrew Napolitano, the senior judicial analyst at Fox News, noted in the Los Angeles Times about the al-Marri case, “We have tried the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson, Al Capone and O.J. Simpson, Tokyo Rose and the Rosenbergs. So who is an enemy combatant? Not John Walker Lindh, who fought alongside the Taliban. Not Zacarias Moussaoui, who the government says helped plan the 9/11 attacks. Not Lyman Faris, who allegedly plotted to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. The Constitution protected their rights. Who is an enemy combatant? Today, it can be anyone the president wants. And that is terrifying.”
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld
Al-Marri’s case was the first time any president has ever stopped a judicial process by declaring someone an “enemy combatant.” The fraud and lying charges against al-Marri could have carried penalties of five to 30 years in prison, with fines of up to $1 million on each count. Clearly, there was no immediate danger that al-Marri would be released to organize terrorist activities if not for the “enemy combatant” designation.
To the contrary, al-Marri could have been kept in prison for years on fraud and lying charges, and by the time he was scheduled for release, terrorism charges could be filed without any danger to national security. Because the government did not file any terrorism charges against him, al-Marri would have no right to call any witnesses with potentially sensitive information. The public information already released in indictments was more than sufficient to convict al-Marri.
By refusing to respect civil liberties, the Bush Administration could have ended up allowing an al-Qaeda agent to get away with his crimes. Many experts felt that the Obama Administration might release al-Marri and send him back to his home country, Qatar. But with his skills in computer fraud, Al-Marri can pose a threat to America from anywhere in the world.
Most important of all, the Bush Administration put the Bill of Rights at risk by treating it so cavalierly as an inconvenience to be dismissed whenever it suits the “war on terror.” Ali al-Marri is not an innocent man. But until he is granted his rights and his day in court, we will all see our civil liberties reduced. The only way the terrorists can ultimately win is to lead us to reject the freedoms considered fundamental to our democracy.
The Obama Administration, anxious to reverse the Bush Administration policies and avoid an almost certain defeat in the Supreme Court, decided to try al-Marri in the regular court system. That led to al-Marri’s guilty plea, and the sentence for material support for terrorism that al-Marri just completed before his deportation to Qatar.

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