Al-Qaida terrorist turned informant apologizes at Guantánamo, gets 13-year sentence

Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.
Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.

A Saudi terrorist turned government witness on Friday apologized to a war court jury for his work with al-Qaida, thanked U.S. troops who have held him captive since 2002, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Ahmed al Darbi, 42, pleaded guilty to terrorism and other war crimes in February 2014 for helping al-Qaida militants plot bombings of ships in the Arabian Sea after the 9/11 terror attacks. Under the plea agreement, unknown to the jury, the sentence began then, meaning he could be free from prison in 2027. The jury also did not know that the deal has him returning to his native Saudi Arabia in February to finish the sentence.

RELATED: Saudi pleads guilty to terror charges, could get out of Guantánamo in 2018

“The time I have spent at Guantánamo has taught me to see clearly who I was, where I was going and what I was doing,” Darbi told the jury from the war court’s lawyer lectern. “It gave me time to think and to see that the violence is wrong and does not stand on any solid foundation. I am thankful for these lessons.”

He was clean shaven, wearing a blue suit and silver tie, and reading from a prepared statement — a starkly different image from his International Red Cross photo showing him with a full beard and white turban. That picture was made at Guantánamo to be sent to his wife and two children back home in Saudi Arabia.

RELATED: Full transcript of the sentencing hearing

Darbi joined jihad in the 90s by traveling to Bosnia Herzegovina to defend Muslims against Serbs. In the months before his capture he was a full-blown al-Qaida operative, purchasing navigational equipment and other supplies for seaborne attacks on Arabian Sea shipping targets.

Smokes rises from the French oil tanker Limburg as it blazes off the Yemeni coastal town of al-Mukalla on Oct. 6, 2002. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Some of those resources were used in an attack off Yemen on a Malaysia-bound, French-flagged oil tanker, the Limburg, on Oct. 6, 2002 — four months after Darbi’s capture. A Bulgarian crew member, Atanas Atanasov, 39, was killed.

But his defense lawyers and prosecutors portrayed him as a valuable informant who in August 2002 described a plot to his interrogators — naming names, exposing a cell, describing tactics and what he knew of a plot that matched what happened to the Limburg.

In addition, prosecutor Air Force Capt. Matthew Hracho, told the jury, Darbi spared the government the time and expense of putting him on trial at the base’s expeditionary war court, called Camp Justice. He also described him as a truthful witness for the government in two ongoing war crimes prosecutions.

So although Darbi could have gotten a 15-year sentence, Hracho recommended the minimum of 13.

The deal, struck during the Obama administration, says Darbi is to return to detention in his native Saudi Arabia by Feb. 20, 2018. He could do his time in the kingdom’s rehabilitation center for jihadists called the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Advisory and Care, where he aspires to work.

Evidence from the war court file of admitted terrorist Ahmed al Darbi includes an Arab bank credit card with his photo that expired in 2004, two years after his capture. Office of Military Commissions website

Yet to be seen is whether the president’s Secretary of Defense will honor it. It will be up to retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to approve the first transfer from Guantánamo of the Donald Trump administration

The sentence comes as Darbi is testifying in two other war court cases about the inner workings of the terror network he joined in the ’90s. In his last court appearance, at the prodding of a prosecutor, he described how a U.S. Army interrogator abused him in Bagram, Afghanistan, including when the soldier pulled out his penis and stuck it in the Saudi captive’s face.

RELATED: War court witness describes his dark days of abuse in U.S. interrogation

Darbi said he forgave those who mistreated him and declared himself “grateful to each person who has dealt with me since my capture, even those who treated me harshly, because I have learned something from each one. The guards who showed me kindness even though they believed I was their enemy, they are a lasting legacy to me. I leave this place a better man thanks to them.”

His attorney, Ramzi Kassem, a CUNY School of Law professor who has for years represented Darbi at no charge through his legal clinic, told the jury that the prisoner was a changed man from the time of his capture. He said Darbi had renounced extremism, kept himself apart from detainees who “espouse extremist or violent ideology, and he has counseled other detainees to abstain from useless, disruptive behavior.”

He had “respectful and professional relationships” with war court prosecutors and law enforcement agents, according to a document Kassem read into the record that was signed by a prosecutor.

His testimony could continue next month in the capital case against fellow Saudi Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s Oct. 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors off Yemen. But, in a war court first, Nashiri’s entire civilian legal team quit the case this week, including his long-serving death-penalty lawyer whose presence may be required to move forward in the scheduled closed court cross examination.

RELATED: USS Cole death-penalty case in limbo after key defense lawyer quits

Darbi’s was the first sentencing hearing since 2011, when another military jury sentenced a former al-Qaida weapons instructor to 14 years of confinement in a plea deal. Noor Uthman Mohammed was sent home to Sudan early, and his conviction and sentence were later overturned while the federal courts were still deciding which crimes charged at Guantánamo were legitimate Law of War offenses.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg