Before he was released from a U.S. maximum-security prison last week, a confessed al Qaeda sleeper agent was offered up in a potential prisoner swap that would have freed two Americans held abroad.
The Daily Beast has learned that the proposal was floated in July 2014 to the then-U.S. ambassador in Qatar by an individual acting on behalf of that country’s attorney general. According to two individuals with direct knowledge of the case, the proposition was made shortly after the Obama administration traded five Taliban fighters for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Those fighters were also sent to Qatar, where they’re to remain under government watch until later this year. U.S. officials have said they’re at risk of plotting further attacks against the United States.
The proposed swap involving the al Qaeda agent, Ali Saleh Al-Marri, raises troubling questions about whether the Bergdahl trade opened a kind of Pandora’s box, signaling to foreign governments that they can pressure the United States to make concessions on terrorism by trading American prisoners abroad for dangerous extremists held in the United States.
“I believe we must examine the administration’s decision in the case of Al-Marri and determine if his release is connected to negotiations of any kind,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s hostage negotiations, wrote Thursday in a letter to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, obtained by The Daily Beast.
Governments’ hostage-negotiation policies are once again taking center stage after ISIS released a photograph Saturday showing the apparent beheading of Haruna Yukawa, one of two Japanese men the group is holding. Unexpectedly, ISIS has now dropped an earlier demand of a $200 million ransom and says it will free the remaining hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, in exchange for the release of Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber who’s imprisoned in Jordan for her role in an attack on three hotels in Amman in 2005, which killed 60 people.
ISIS has made other demands for freeing prisoners, including a Pakistani woman known in counterterrorism circles as “Lady al Qaeda” who is held in the United States. Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill Americans in Afghanistan, has been used as a bargaining chip in other negotiations, as well. In 2012, Pakistani officials offered to try and win the release of Bergdahl if the United States would free Siddiqui. The Obama administration quickly rejected the idea because releasing her would be seen as offering concessions to terrorist groups and put a potentially dangerous woman back on the streets, according to current and former administration officials.
In his letter, Hunter accused the administration of failing to pursue other avenues for freeing Americans abroad and relying on prisoner releases or exchanges, “which are often counter to U.S. security interests, for leverage in negotiations.” The congressman also alluded to other potential swaps, saying it’s his understanding that “other foreign nationals” who are still in U.S. custody “have also been named as potential figures of interest in other cases, with Qatar at the forefront.”
Qatar has emerged as a go-between in various hostage negotiations. It agreed to take custody of the five Taliban fighters for a period of one year after Bergdahl’s release. And sources close to efforts to free other Americans held abroad said that Qatar facilitated a ransom payment to help free journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who was held for two years by al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
Hunter helped spur the administration to review its hostage negotiation policy, which is widely seen by experts and family members of Americans held abroad as dysfunctional.
The proposal to trade Al-Marri came from an individual described by one source as a “government contractor” and close friend of Qatar’s attorney general, Ali Bin Mohsen Bin Fetais Al Marri, who is said to be a relative of the confessed terrorist. The emissary met with the then-U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Susan Ziadeh, and raised the idea of trading Al-Marri for Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple who’d been living in Qatar and were convicted in the still-unexplained death of their adopted daughter, in what was widely criticized by human-rights groups and legal experts as an unfair show trial.
“Qatari government officials told the Huang team that they floated the idea of a prisoner swap to the U.S. ambassador,” Richard Grenell, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on the Huang case, told The Daily Beast. That account was corroborated by a second source.
A State Department spokesman said that “no such proposal was ever on the table,” and noted that Al-Marri was eventually released from prison and sent home to Qatar as scheduled “and not as the result of any U.S.-Qatari agreement.” Asked for further clarification on whether the swap was raised as described and what the U.S. reaction was, the spokesman declined to comment further. The Qatari embassy in Washington didn’t respond to inquiries from The Daily Beast.
A second administration official pushed back on the idea that Al-Marri’s release was a quid pro quo for freeing the Huangs, who were eventually allowed to leave Qatar in December after their conviction was overturned.
“Al-Marri’s release happened as a matter of course, as a result of his court-imposed sentence being completed,” the administration official said. Al-Marri was given a “good conduct release” from the “supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado, on Jan. 16, after serving 87 percent of his 100-month sentence, said a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons. He’d accumulated credit for good behavior while in prison and time already served in jail while awaiting trial, which is why he didn’t serve the remainder of his time.
Administration officials characterized Al-Marri’s release as routine. But Al-Marri was no ordinary prisoner. At one time, he was the only so-called enemy combatant being held on U.S. soil, a status that treated him more like solider in a war than an ordinary criminal. Al-Marri’s release—timely or otherwise—has led to criticism that the Obama administration is repatriating a dangerous man who could help plan more attacks. An individual with knowledge of Al-Marri’s release said President Obama played no role in the process.
Al-Marri was first detained by U.S. authorities in December 2001 at his home in Peoria, Illinois, having arrived in the U.S. on a student visa. Authorities suspected that Al-Marri, who has dual citizenship in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, had ties to al Qaeda. But his future dramatically changed when was declared an enemy combatant in June 2003 and then transferred into military custody.
It turns out that Al-Marri may have been more valuable as a source of intelligence about other terrorist plots than for anything he knew about the 9/11 attacks. Much of the information that U.S. officials have on his plans came from the brutal interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, which included waterboarding. “Over three quarters of the intelligence reports that the FBI cited in a paper assessing the activities of [Al-Marri] and explaining the reach of al Qaeda’s network in the U.S. were sourced to” Mohammed, the CIA stated in its written response to a blistering report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the so-called torture program. “Prior to [Mohammed’s] information, CIA and the FBI were aware of Al-Marri’s links to al Qaeda but lacked the detail to more fully understand al Qaeda’s plans for him.”
That may explain why U.S. officials were reluctant to give Al-Marri a criminal trial, where he could have questioned the credibility of the evidence Mohammed provided while being tortured and exposed the details of the CIA’s interrogation program.
Al-Marri was held in a naval brig for more than five years, and his lawyers have claimed he was subjected to harsh and intimidating treatment. Al-Marri’s case took yet another odd turn when, early in the Obama administration, he was transferred back into federal court and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to aid al Qaeda.
Back in Qatar, where Al-Marri has been reunited with his family, he’s being given a hero’s welcome. Members of the public have been invited to a celebration in Al-Marri’s honor held just down the street from a football stadium that will host the 2022 World Cup, said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Several prominent Qatari personalities welcomed Al-Marri home with open arms. That trend has continued, with a longtime board member of Al Jazeera declaring on her personal Twitter page that ‘We congratulate the family of Ali bin Kahlah Al-Marri on his return,’” Weinberg told The Daily Beast.
Al-Marri may have other powerful friends in Qatar, in addition to the attorney general. Weinberg noted that in U.S. court documents, Al-Marri is said to have spent nearly a decade working as a “key person” in the audit department of Qatar Islamic Bank, and then as a senior auditor for the government of Qatar. Sending a known moneyman to a country widely seen as a major financial hub for terrorist groups, instead of to Saudi Arabia, where he also has citizenship, “was a big missed opportunity for U.S. policy,” Weinberg said.
UPDATE 1/26/15, 2:23PM: In a letter to Obama on Monday, Hunter asked for the president's "justification for [Al-Marri's] release and clarification on whether you possess the authority--given the compelling national security interests involved--to have acted differently."
Administration officials have reiterated that Al-Marri was released because he'd served his time and that his return to Qatar didn't involve any quid-pro-quo for prisoners being released or any other concessions.
Hunter said the administration has offered contradictory messages on its hostage release policy, pointing to remarks yesterday by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDunough, who told Fox News Sunday, "We don't get into negotiation with terrorists," either through ransoms or prisoner swaps.
"This statement blatantly contradicts the fact that five terrorists were traded for Bowe Bergdahl," Hunter told Obama. "The deck was reshuffled for all other Americans in captivity" because of the Bergdahl-Taliban trade, Hunter continued, charging that "the administration has made concessions [to terrorists], often through intermediaries--whether done through negotiations with Qatar or through information handlers."
The administration has said that Bergdahl was traded under the longstanding practice of swapping prisoners of war and that negotiations over civilians held by terrorist groups are a different matter.