War-court exclusive: To go home, Saudi terrorist IDs al-Qaida commander

This June 16, 2014 Pentagon-approved sketch showed the captive charged as Abd al Hadi al Iraqi at his arraignment on on war crimes charges at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At left are members of his defense team at the time, who have since been replaced.
This June 16, 2014 Pentagon-approved sketch showed the captive charged as Abd al Hadi al Iraqi at his arraignment on on war crimes charges at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At left are members of his defense team at the time, who have since been replaced. ASSOCIATED PRESS

An admitted Saudi terrorist making good on a plea deal testified for war-court prosecutors on Tuesday that an Iraqi captive awaiting a war-crimes trial served as his al-Qaida commander in league with the Taliban in Afghanistan long before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Court workers were videotaping the testimony of Ahmed al Darbi for possible use at the trial of a former CIA captive charged as Abd al Hadi al Iraqi and accused of commanding troops who carried out war crimes in Afghanistan after 9/11. Hadi, born in Mosul, Iraq, insists that his true name is Nashwan al Tamir, and Darbi was called to resolve any question of mistaken identity.

“He became older and his beard became all gray,” Darbi testified from the maximum-security court’s witness stand. “But it is apparent to me he is Abd al Hadi al Iraqi.”

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In court, Darbi identified the man in a traditional white turban and robe topped by a black vest as Abd al Hadi al Iraqi. Darbi said Hadi was an al-Qaida liaison to the Taliban in Afghanistan; was the Saudi’s commander for about a month-long stint when Darbi served on a three-man tank unit in a 1996 battle with anti-Taliban forces; and was someone he saw in the same guest house as other al-Qaida military commanders.

None of those activities are alleged to be war crimes, and Darbi said he last saw Hadi in 2000. That was before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan where Hadi allegedly led insurgents who set roadside charges and carried out suicide attacks and ambushes that killed American troops, CIA contractors, and targeted other U.S.-allied troops and civilians.

Hadi, 56, was brought to court in a wheelchair after being diagnosed with a herniated disc in his lower back. He sat quietly in a hard-back seat near his six Pentagon-paid attorneys, four of them military lawyers. He did not appear to react during the testimony and neither did four guests of the prosecution — relatives of two Americans killed in Afghanistan in 2003, allegedly by Hadi’s troops.

Ahmed al Darbi holds a photo of his children while he poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.

Darbi, 42, was dressed like a business executive in a charcoal suit and tie, a wristwatch at the cuff of his white button-down shirt, symbolizing his role as a government witness. The Saudi was clean-shaven, with short-cropped hair in contrast to his most recent photo, posing for the International Red Cross at Guantánamo with a picture of his kids. Darbi was chubbier, but he looked more like a passport photo taken before his capture, when he was traveling incognito for al-Qaida.

But while Darbi described himself as meeting with Osama bin Laden on several occasions between 1996 and 2000 — at one point angering the al-Qaida founder by quitting the jihad in Afghanistan — Darbi’s testimony did not put bin Laden and Hadi in the same place.

The testimony was a war-court first. Hadi’s judge, Marine Col. Peter Rubin, permitted people at Guantánamo to watch the recording of the deposition in the spectators’ gallery behind the courtroom, drawing one reporter and a few curious sailors to the front row. Judges in the USS Cole and Sept. 11 death-penalty tribunals closed the court for similar depositions, which essentially created time-capsule testimony in the event a witness has died or is gone from Guantánamo by the time a case goes to trial.

RELATED: Guantánamo judge cancels U.S. video feed of terrorist’s time-capsule testimony

Only at trial will the judge decide which part, if any, of Darbi’s testimony will be shown to Hadi’s jury.

Hadi, meantime, has no trial date. But Darbi is due to be sentenced next month and, if Defense Secretary James Mattis makes good on an Obama administration era deal, go back to Saudi Arabia to serve out the remainder of a sentence of up to 15 years. Darbi pleaded guilty to terror charges in 2014 in exchange for repatriation early next year after turning government witness.

A pre-capture photo of Ahmed al Darbi that was included in a court filing following his 2014 Guantánamo guilty plea to terror charges.

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So, besides identifying Hadi as an al-Qaida commander before 9/11, Darbi also provided a preview of his life story — starting as a frequent, teenaged hash and khat user in Saudi Arabia with no affinity to Islam. He said he found religion after service in the Saudi Army and joined the jihad in 1995 to fight alongside Muslims in Bosnia, only to be disappointed by his first battle with the Serbs.

Darbi said he went to the front lines “extremely happy” but emerged from his first shooting battle “depressed.”

Prosecutor Navy Cmdr. Kevin Flynn asked why.

“Because I did not become a martyr,” Darbi replied.

Because it’s a deposition, not actual trial testimony, the Marine colonel permitted Flynn to ask wide-ranging questions — to frequent objections by Hadi defense attorney Adam Thurschwell, who said questions about Darbi’s jihadist history were irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial to Hadi. The judge will resolve those objections before or during the trial.

Darbi explained how he became the brother-in-law of Khalid al Mihdhar, one of the Saudi hijackers aboard American Airlines 77, the passenger plane that hit the Pentagon, killing nearly 200 of the 2,976 people who perished on 9/11: In 1998, when they were already committed al-Qaida members, Mihdhar and Darbi married Yemeni sisters in a ceremony in Sanaa.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg