Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant,” Receives Eight-Year Sentence


Ali al-Marri, in a photo taken earlier this year in the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South CarolinaSo it’s finally over. Ali al-Marri, a legal US resident from Qatar, who was held as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland for five years and eight months without charge or trial, was finally sentenced in a federal court last Thursday. The prosecution was seeking a 15-year sentence, following al-Marri’s guilty plea in April, when, as part of a plea bargain, he accepted that he had receiving training in al-Qaeda camps and had come to the United States on a mission for al-Qaeda on the day before the 9/11 attacks. However, in the Federal District Court in Peoria, Illinois, Judge Michael M. Mihm accepted a request from a-Marri’s lawyers to take into account the nearly eight years he has already spent in US custody, including the five years and eight months that he spent in almost complete isolation as part of the Bush administration’s aberrant “War on Terror” policies.

I have been covering al-Marri’s story in depth since June 2007, writing up the painful details of his torture and noting, with incredulity, the rulings of the courts who backed the Bush administration’s policies, but it was not until President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum on his second day in office, stating that it was “in the interests of the United States that the executive branch 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,” that his long and unjust isolation came to an end, and he was reintroduced to the justice system that had been prepared to try him back in June 2003.

It was at that point that President Bush declared him an “enemy combatant” and moved him to the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was held until February this year, and where, in his first 16 months of chronic isolation, he was subjected to the type of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were prevalent at the time in Guantánamo (as I explained at length in an article last December, “The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri”).

Al-Marri’s long years of extra-legal detention and torture — like those endured by two other Americans, Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla — are a black mark on America’s recent history, and it has always amazed me that even Americans who were — and are — content to let foreigners suffer in Guantánamo and other “War on Terror” prisons did not feel a shiver of apprehension when fellow Americans were subjected to the same treatment on US soil. Putting aside the ”terrorist” rhetoric, it should have been abundantly clear all along that this was the kind of tyranny that the Founding Fathers of the United States expressly set out to prevent.

In court on Thursday, al-Marri’s lawyers also urged the judge to reduce their client’s sentence because “he no longer harbored a desire to attack the United States,” and this is clear from a statement that al-Marri made in court (reproduced in full here). In what the New York Times described as “eight minutes of tearful testimony,” al-Marri told the judge, “I am sorry for providing assistance for those who would do this country harm,” and stated that he was “a changed person from the 2001 al-Marri,” explaining:

My religious beliefs — refined through years of thoughtful prayer and study during my incarceration — I realize prohibit me from engaging in violence toward any man. I forcefully reject any sort of violence for religious, political or other reasons. I say this to the court and I also state this to the representatives of my country who are present with us today. I know that the news people are here so I know my word will be received by those with whom I associated with in 2001. You have my word.

Al-Marri also spoke about the punishment of missing his children growing up, but it was the words about how he has changed that, for me, rang out most noticeably from the proceedings, overshadowing the prosecution’s claims that a psychologist claimed that al-Marri was “likely to engage in hostile acts towards the United States,” and setting a seal on this long and deeply unpleasant story of how, in response to a terrorist attack, the Bush administration sank to the level of those it sought to defeat, in the most appropriate setting for this conclusion: a federal court.

As President Obama prepares once more to revive the tainted Military Commissions at Guantánamo, I hope he has paid attention to the proceedings in Peoria on October 29, 2009, and has realized how hollow are the words of David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, who, as the Times described it, “questioned the Obama administration’s decision to try Mr. Marri in criminal court instead of the military commissions favored by the administration of President George W. Bush.”

Stating that the sentence “underscores how ‘ill suited’ conventional courts are for dealing with these issues,” Mr. Rivkin proceeded to complain that criminal courts are “a crapshoot,” with wildly varying sentences, and claimed that the Military Commissions “arrive at a better judgment, being comprised of warriors, as to what level of danger the person poses.”

With federal courts having a proven track record of dealing effectively with terrorist cases, and with just three results after eight years of the Military Commissions — each of which, in various ways, was regarded as compromised or inadequate — it is, frankly, difficult to perceive the logic in the world of “warriors” inhabited by Mr. Rivkin, and far more comprehensible to acknowledge the words of Jonathan Hafetz, a staff attorney at the ACLU. For many years, Mr. Hafetz led the challenge to al-Marri’s detention as an “enemy combatant,” and, as the Times noted, he called the sentence “a powerful reminder that America’s civilian courts can deliver justice even in the most challenging circumstances.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “Ali al-Marri’s Eight Year Sentence.” Cross-posted on The Public Record.

For a sequence of articles on Ali al-Marri’s case, see The Ordeal of Ali al-Marri (June 2007), The torture of Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland (November 2007), Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008), Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009), Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

Also see related articles on Jose Padilla: Jose Padilla: More Sinned Against Than Sinning (August 2007), Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans (January 2008), US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009).

5 Responses

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  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Al-Marri was freed and sent home to Qatar in January 2015. From the Peoria Star:

    Former West Peoria enemy combatant Ali al-Marri released from prison early, deported from U.S.
    By Andy Kravitz, Peoria Journal Star,m January 17, 2015

    After more than 13 years in local, military and federal jails or prisons on terrorism-related charges, a former West Peoria resident is home in his native Qatar, leaving a series of short-term questions and long-term legal ramifications in his wake.

    Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, 49, was spirited out of the United States on Friday, two days before he was scheduled to be released from a maximum security prison in Florence, Colo.

    The move was a surprise to his attorney, Andrew Savage of Charleston, S.C., who had met with his client just one day before, on Thursday, though Savage declined to comment further on the unexpected release deportation until he could get more detail from authorities.

    Al-Marri had been slated to be released Sunday and deported to Qatar as he had finished his 100-month sentence imposed in October 2009 for providing material support to the al-Qaida terrorism network.

    An official with the Bureau of Prisons would not comment. A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Saturday evening he could not provide any additional comment by deadline on the post-release deportation or any legal proceedings that may have preceded it.

    But the unanswered questions run deeper than how al-Marri came to be returned to his wife and five children ahead of schedule. The long-term legal ramifications of his groundbreaking case remain fuzzy.

    On one hand, the former West Peorian successfully challenged his designation as an “enemy combatant,” a legal designation that allowed the George W. Bush administration to hold him for years without charges and without many legal rights. But on the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t able to hear the case as planned as President Barack Obama, within a few months of being elected, ordered al-Marri charged in civilian court.

    “I am tempted to say, that we just don’t know,” said Carl Tobias, a legal professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “The facts are just too unclear, so I am not sure where it leads us. There are a lot of ways to look at it, but you can’t just come to one conclusion.

    “It never really ended in a way that was a clear victory or that clarified the law,” Tobias said.

    A professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Law and a former member of al-Marri’s legal team disagrees.

    “While it is unfortunate the Supreme Court never addressed this extraordinarily important constitutional question, I do think that years of litigation and the attention around this case reinforced the idea that domestic military detention is a bad idea and bad policy,” said Jonathan Hafetz.

    “It is important to remember that even the Bush administration, which defended this case all the way to the Supreme Court, did not designate anyone as an enemy combatant after al-Marri was in 2003,” Hafetz added.

    Al-Marri was arrested at his West Peoria apartment three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. For nearly two years, he was alternatively charged in federal courts in Manhattan and Peoria with credit card fraud and lying to the FBI.

    Enemy combatant

    Just as a federal judge in Peoria was to hold a critical hearing, the government dropped all charges, declared al-Marri an “enemy combatant” and whisked him away to a naval brig in South Carolina, where he was held starting in June 2003. He had been held there until February 2009, when President Barack Obama ordered him released from military custody after a federal grand jury sitting in Peoria indicted him.

    As such, his case became a cause celebre in how the White House dealt with terrorism detainees, how much power the president has during wartime, and whether the government can hold a person without charges and without a trial.

    Al-Marri briefly won a victory in the U.S. 4th District Court of Appeals when a three-judge panel ruled the White House could not hold him forever, but that was overturned by the entire nine judges panel in a rare review.

    The case was headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could have caused the Obama camp to have to defend Bush’s policies, a move it likely didn’t relish. Yet, giving up that arrow in the presidential quiver — to hold someone as an enemy combatant — was also likely something they didn’t want to give up.

    Instead, Obama opted to charge al-Marri in federal court in Peoria with aiding al-Qaida, a charge he pleaded to in spring 2009. He was sentenced to eight years in prison later that year with some credit for time he had already spent behind bars.

    Protecting the nation

    After 9/11, many government officials felt it necessary to detain potential terrorists as a way to protect the nation. That was the view of Kirk Lippold, USS Cole commander when it was attacked in 2000 by al-Qaida operatives, who told the Journal Star in 2009 that “you don’t wait for a murderer to commit a murder before you do something. You don’t let a robber rob a bank, do you?”

    But that meant doing away with one of the most basic tenets in the American legal system, the right of habeas corpus.

    Latin for “bring the body,” habeas corpus is the means by which a person can challenge incarceration by requiring those detaining him or her to justify their reasons for doing so.

    Tobias, who followed al-Marri’s trek through the appeals process, believes the legal landscape remains vague because of the Obama administration’s charging al-Marri.

    “I think the government would have won in the Supreme Court, but there was always the risk that they wouldn’t,” he said. “The criminal charge route didn’t involve any risk, and it allowed them to maintain that victory at the 4th Circuit level but not risk the Supreme Court reversing that.

    “There was a lot of upside for the administration, but it must have been frustrating for the attorneys representing him,” he said.

    Both experts say this doesn’t seem likely to affect the average person who might be charged with a theft, burglary or murder. Rather, the discussion on habeas corpus and al-Marri was limited to enemy combatants.

    Hafetz, who focuses on habeas corpus issues, said the take-home is that stripping accused terrorists of such basic rights can lead to other rights being degraded.

    “The United States can and does make terrible mistakes, and it can sacrifice some of its more traditional rights, but (al-Marri’s case) also shows that the United States is capable of learning from its mistakes.”


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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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