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Sleeper Agent

What will Obama do with the only enemy combatant held on U.S. soil?

11:00 PM, Jan 22, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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AS ONE OF HIS FIRST acts as president, Barack Obama ordered his new cabinet to review the case of Ali Saleh Khalah al Marri, the only "enemy combatant" held in the continental United States. On Thursday, January 22, President Obama ordered his executive branch to undertake "a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al Marri's continued detention, and identify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions."

Al Marri's case has long been a source of controversy. Human rights groups and critics of the Bush administration charge that he is held illegally, and that he should be prosecuted in a federal court. The Bush administration countered that al Marri was a plotting al Qaeda operative who could be held indefinitely until the end of the "war on terror." Al Marri's status has been repeatedly challenged in the U.S. courts, with the critics winning some rounds and the Bush administration others. Obama's order means that his cabinet members and their attending departments will now have to determine what, if anything, to do with al Marri, who is currently being held at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Beyond the legal wrangling, however, there are some important angles to al Marri's story that Obama's cabinet should explore. First, and foremost, al Marri's case underscores the gravity of the terrorist threat, including the depth of deception al Qaeda employs in its attempts to kill Americans. Second, al Marri's story sheds light on how the Bush administration utilized "enhanced" interrogation techniques to uncover the details of al Qaeda's plotting.

Al Marri lived in the United States for several years, receiving his bachelor's degree in business administration from Bradley University in 1991. He then left the United States and, according to declassified files released by the government, eventually found his way to Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Between 1996 and 1998, he was allegedly trained on various terrorist methods, including the use of poisons.

In the summer of 2001, the government claims, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) introduced al Marri to Osama bin Laden. Shortly thereafter, al Marri began receiving financial assistance from Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi, one of KSM's chief lieutenants for the September 11 operation. In August of 2001, at the behest of KSM, Hawsawi allegedly gave al Marri upwards of $16,000 for a laptop computer and other expenses. Then, on September 10, 2001, al Marri flew back to the United States, claiming that he wanted to receive a graduate degree in computer sciences from Bradley.

The U.S. government believes that al Marri's story about wanting to receive a graduate degree was a ruse. In a declaration that was written in September of 2004 and declassified in 2006, Jeffrey N. Rapp, the Director of the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, noted that al Marri rarely attended classes and was in a "failing status" by December 2001. Al Marri most likely had other things on his mind. Rapp wrote that al Marri had volunteered for a martyrdom mission during his meeting with bin Laden.

The government believes that al Marri's mission in the United States was two-fold. He was to investigate the possibility of launching a cyber attack against the U.S. banking industry and other targets, as well as act "as a point of contact for al Qaeda operatives arriving in the United States." However, al Marri did not have the opportunity to execute any of the alleged plots. He was detained in December of 2001.

Federal authorities also captured Al Marri's laptop, which contained numerous pieces of incriminating information in addition to various jihadist lectures given by Osama bin Laden. Al Marri had been doing extensive research on chemical weapons, as evidenced by numerous links to web sites containing information on hydrogen cyanide and other poisons. His laptop pointed authorities to "draft" emails that were written in English and saved in several accounts. Al Qaeda agents have exchanged information using publicly-registered email accounts. Instead of sending the emails, and risking that they are intercepted, a second or third operative can log into the same account, thereby accessing vital information in a draft email.

The emails from al Marri were addressed to an account that has been linked to KSM. And the government believes they contained coded information, including al Marri's stateside cell phone number.