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Three years after guilty plea in al-Qaida plots, Md. man remains in limbo

This September 2009 photo, courtesy of the Center for Constitutional Rights, shows Majid Khan while imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
This September 2009 photo, courtesy of the Center for Constitutional Rights, shows Majid Khan while imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. (Associated Press)

A family friend who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan started an Owings Mills High School graduate on a journey that would take him to Pakistan to work with senior leaders of al-Qaida and then to Guantanamo Bay, where he eventually promised to cooperate with the United States against his former comrades.

A decade later, as new details of Majid Khan's odyssey emerge, one thing is clear: The journey is far from over.

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Khan was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 — tortured, his lawyers say in a detailed new account released this week — and sent to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He pleaded guilty before a military commission in 2012 to war crimes that included murder, spying and conspiracy in a deadly al-Qaida bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia, and plots to kill Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Karachi and blow up gas stations in the United States.

Under terms of the plea deal, he is to serve no more than 19 years for his role in the 2003 suicide car bombing at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 11 and the other plots in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors in their cases against other al-Qaida suspects.

But Khan, 35, still has not been sentenced. A judge gave him four years to prove his cooperation before his term will be decided next year. And once Khan has served his sentence, there is no guarantee he will be released. Like other detainees at Guantanamo, he remains in limbo as the Obama administration struggles to figure out how to meet the president's pledge to close the detention center.

"In a lot of ways, the men who remain in Guantanamo are forgotten," said J. Wells Dixon, Khan's lawyer. "They are legacy cases, for lack of a better term."

The United States continues to fight terrorism around the world, a battle that has regained intensity over the past year with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But the Obama administration has preferred to prosecute suspected terrorists in federal court; no new detainees have been sent to Guantanamo in years.

Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the Obama approach has delivered swift justice.

"It's not that we think we can successfully prosecute suspected terrorists in the civilian court system," he said. "We know we can."

But Price acknowledged that the government does not have a specific timeline for transferring detainees out of Guantanamo, leaving Khan and the other 121 inmates stuck there indefinitely.

Twelve years after Khan was captured, details continue to emerge about his case, filling in some of the gaps in how he forged ties with al-Qaida, how investigators tracked him down and how he was treated before arriving at Guantanamo.

The report on torture released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in December contains some pieces of the puzzle, as do Khan's newly public recollections of the treatment he endured while in CIA custody.

The aspect of Khan's case that has never been clear is why Khan decided to join the ranks of al-Qaida. He was a seemingly successful immigrant who had landed a high-paying job and absorbed American culture.

His lawyer said there's a story to tell and some of it will come out at Khan's sentencing hearing.

"Majid made the decisions that he did," Dixon said. "He doesn't shy away from that, but there's certainly other influences in his life."

Details in the Senate report, parts of which were declassified in December, offer clues to those influences.

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Khan's path to al-Qaida began before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2000, a man named Iyman Faris visited Khan's family at their home outside Baltimore, telling stories of his time in the 1980s as a mujahedin warrior fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Those conversations first got Khan interested in the idea of pursuing a violent kind of holy war, he said in his plea agreement.

Khan traveled to his native Pakistan in January 2002, four months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His father sought to arrange a marriage to the daughter of a senior general close to Musharraf to tie Khan to the military elite that then ruled Pakistan.

But Khan was already forging ties with men at the highest levels of al-Qaida — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Senate report revealed that Khan had an uncle whom Faris once called "the right-foot of Osama bin Laden." Khan told interrogators that his uncle funded some of his travel for al-Qaida and was in touch with senior members of the group.

Mohammed hoped to use Khan's planned wedding as an opportunity to assassinate Musharraf, investigators said, but the arranged marriage fell through.

Mohammed gave Khan another mission to kill Musharraf. He ordered Khan to record a "martyr video" and then don an explosive vest and sit in a mosque to wait for the president to arrive. He never did.

The second plot might have been a test of Khan's loyalty. But Khan said in his plea agreement that Mohammed was "visibly upset that the attempt failed and threw his cellphone."

After that, the pair turned their attention to launching attacks in the United States. Khan had told Mohammed that his family owned gas stations in the United States. Investigators say Mohammed suggested that Khan exploit his knowledge to plan attacks on underground gas tanks.

Late in 2002, Khan went to Thailand and delivered $50,000 to a group affiliated with al-Qaida, he said in his plea agreement. Some of that money was later used to fund the attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

But before the bombing took place, both Khan and Mohammed were captured. For years, the CIA said agents had captured Khan after Mohammed was subjected to brutal interrogation. But Senate investigators concluded that Khan was captured before Mohammed had given up any information.

"There is no indication in CIA records that reporting from KSM — or any other CIA detainee — played any role in the identification and capture of Majid Khan," they wrote.

Instead, they found, Khan's capture was the result of a mix of police work and high-tech spying. The FBI office in Baltimore launched its investigation into Khan after connecting him to an email account — BobDesi@hotmail.com — that had been used to contact a known al-Qaida account.

Another agency, the name of which is redacted in the Senate report, was tracking Khan's Internet use and placed him in Karachi.

In March, Pakistani authorities moved in and arrested Khan at his brother's home.

Subsequent arrests of suspects in the United States, including the old mujahedin Faris, filled in more details on Khan's ties to al-Qaida.

The CIA has said its interrogation of Khan proved useful in getting Mohammed to talk, but the Senate investigators rejected that contention as well.

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While Khan was in the custody of a foreign government, the investigators said, his captors built a good rapport with him. They pressed him on why he had gone to Thailand and pointed to inconsistencies in his response. Eventually, they said, Khan "slumped in his chair and said he would reveal everything."

Khan was handed over to the CIA in 2003 and held at one or more of the agency's secret "black sites." That first year, according to notes released by his lawyers last week, Khan spent much of the time in darkness.

Twice, his lawyers say, he was dunked in an ice bath and half drowned. They described the procedure as waterboarding, but a CIA spokesman denied that Khan was one of three detainees subject to that technique.

At other points, his lawyers say, Khan's food was pureed and fed to him rectally, he was terrorized with a hammer and filmed naked.

Khan was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006. Before the military commission in 2012, he described his plea deal as a "leap of faith," because he had no guarantee of what would happen next.

Wells said the details of the torture Khan suffered are important because they show what a significant decision it was for his client to plead guilty. He said it is not clear when Khan will be sentenced or where he might serve any prison time.

One detainee who was convicted at Guantanamo remains there. Others have been transferred to their home countries or to other nations.

Khan, who has legal residence in the United States, could be sent to a federal prison, but that has not happened to any other inmate convicted at Guantanamo.

Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the Guantanamo tribunals, was asked where Khan might serve his term.

"It depends," he replied.

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