PEORIA, Ill. — A 43-year-old man who was locked up without charge for years by the Bush administration 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, a married father of five from Qatar who was attending college in this central Illinois city when he was arrested, 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.
He 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 say they'll argue that he should get credit for the time spent in military custody, too — more than five years.
"Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we, as a nation, still face," U.S. 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 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," al-Marri's attorney, Andy Savage, said outside the federal courthouse in Peoria.
Plea negotiations have been going on since before al-Marri's initial court appearance in Peoria in March, Savage said.
"It was not an easy negotiation," he said, explaining that al-Marri's deal required approval from "the very top levels of the Justice Department."
The bearded, white-capped Al-Marri, wearing a white pullover, tan pants and cuffs on his ankles, spoke frequently in court. But most of his answers were single-word responses to questions from U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm.
When the judge asked al-Marri how would plead, the diminutive Bradley University graduate, seated at a table with his lawyers, paused briefly before answering without emotion, "Guilty."
At least a half-dozen federal agents were in the courtroom to provide security.
Al-Marri, a legal U.S. resident, was arrested in late 2001 while studying at Bradley in Peoria after federal authorities alleged 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 South Carolina. His attorneys say 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.
Holder said President Barack Obama ordered him to review the al-Marri case shortly after Obama took office in January.
Al-Marri got 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.
In court Thursday, al-Marri stood briefly at a podium but asked to sit after a few minutes. His attorneys said he was recently treated for a hernia.
Al-Marri admitted he trained in al-Qaida camps and stayed in al-Qaida safe houses in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001, where he learned how to handle weapons and how to communicate by phone and e-mail with the help of a code he called "Code 10."
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.
Mohammed, al-Marri told the judge, asked him to "assist him in some operations."
When Mihm asked him where, al-Marri said, "In the United States."
Al-Marri's deal with the government says he had detailed information in his computer on the chemicals used to make cyanide gas, and had printed information about American waterways and dams.
Prosecutors would not spell out what they believe al-Marri planned to attack, hinting they would provide more details at his sentencing.
Earlier government assertions that al-Marri was part of a plot to disrupt the country's financial systems were not part of Thursday's agreement.
Savage, when asked what al-Marri now thinks about what he pleaded guilty to, said his client "would continue to insist that he never would have done anything violent."
Jeffery Lang, acting U.S. attorney for Illinois' central district, dismissed that statement.
"They can say what they want," he said on the street outside the courthouse.