PEORIA, Ill. — A man who was locked up without charges for years in the Charleston Naval Consolidated Brig pleaded guilty Thursday to training in al-Qaida camps and coming to the United States on a mission for the terrorist group the day before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ali al-Marri, 43, admitted to one count of conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. A second charge of providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization was dropped.
Al-Marri faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine at his July 30 sentencing, though he will be credited for 18 months spent in civilian custody. His attorneys said they will argue that he also should get credit for the more than five years he spent in military custody.
"Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we, as a nation, still face," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Thursday.
"But it also reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to the values upon which this nation was founded and the rule of law."
Al-Marri's attorneys said their client, a married father of five from Qatar, chose to plead guilty to avoid the risk, if found guilty, of spending 30 years in prison.
"We thought (the plea) was the right approach to take based on the evidence the government allowed us to review over the last several weeks," Charleston-based attorney Andy Savage said outside the federal courthouse in Peoria.
When the judge asked al-Marri how he would plead, the Bradley University graduate paused briefly before answering without emotion, "guilty."
Al-Marri admitted he trained in al-Qaida camps and stayed in al-Qaida safe houses in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001, when he learned how to handle weapons and how to communicate by phone and e-mail using a code.
He also admitted meeting and having regular contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and with Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, who allegedly helped the Sept. 11 hijackers with money and Western-style clothing.
Al-Marri, a legal U.S. resident, was arrested in late 2001 while studying at Bradley in Peoria after federal authorities alleged that he was tied to organizers of the 2001 attacks.
The Bush administration declared al-Marri an "enemy combatant" in 2003 and held him without charges for more than five years at a Navy brig in Hanahan. His attorneys said he was tortured there.
The "enemy combatant" designation was dropped when he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Illinois. He was moved to a federal prison in Pekin, Ill., just outside Peoria, in March, and remains there.
Al-Marri received a bachelor's degree in business management administration from Bradley in 1991, then went to work for a bank in Qatar.
The government said he met with Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2001 and was sent to the U.S. to help al-Qaida operatives carry out post-Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Al-Marri obtained a student visa and returned to the U.S. the day before terrorists crashed two hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Critics and legal experts have been closely monitoring the case as a bellwether of how the new administration would handle a broader array of detainee issues.
Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor and former Bush administration State Department and Pentagon official, said the plea agreement was probably the best option, given all of the potential legal complications.
"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.
"Given the history of this case, the administration didn't want to litigate it, and courts will be happy to be rid of it."