By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - For years there was no outward sign of an attempt to prosecute "high-value" Guantanamo prisoner and alleged al Qaeda operative Majid Khan.
But a flurry of legal activity in recent days suggests a plea deal could be in the works for the former data programmer from Baltimore who once said his only knowledge of al Qaeda came from watching "too much Fox News."
If Khan pleads guilty to war crimes charges and agrees to cooperate with prosecutors, he could be a valuable witness in the upcoming prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks. The charges against Khan allege he took orders directly from Mohammed, often referred to in legal circles simply as "KSM."
"He certainly was fairly close with KSM and could be helpful in that trial," said retired Air Force Colonel Moe Davis, a former chief prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Khan, who will turn 32 on February 28, has denied involvement in terrorist attacks and suggested at an administrative hearing at Guantanamo in 2007 that his knowledge of al Qaeda was limited to what he learned from watching U.S. television news.
Only thanks to TV did he learn "that to become al Qaeda, a person needs to go to Afghanistan for training and take an oath to Osama bin Laden for the cause," he told a panel of U.S. military officers. "I've never been to Afghanistan or met (bin Laden). To prove it, I can take a lie detector test," he added.
FINALLY FACING CHARGES
Khan has been in U.S. custody for nearly nine years, first in secret CIA prisons and then at Guantanamo since 2006. His lawyers have pleaded for years for his captors to charge him and put forth evidence against him, or let him go.
U.S. authorities have never given a reason for the delay. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have maintained the United States has the right to hold Guantanamo prisoners indefinitely without trial.
But on Monday, Khan was handed a list of sworn charges. On Tuesday, prosecutors sent them to the retired admiral at the Pentagon overseeing the Guantanamo tribunals. On Wednesday, the admiral approved the charges and referred them for trial without making any changes, an unusually rapid turnaround that suggests a deal has been made.
Officials on Friday set his arraignment for February 29.
Khan's lawyers, who were at his side when the charges were handed to him in Guantanamo, issued a statement saying they would represent him through the process and that he was "doing well considering these challenging circumstances." They declined further comment.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, said, "As to whether or not there's some sort of plea deal, he certainly has the right to make one."
Khan faces five war crimes charges that could keep him locked up for life - conspiring with al Qaeda, murder and attempted murder, providing material support for terrorism, and spying on U.S. and Pakistani targets.
He is accused of making a martyrdom video and strapping on a bomb vest in an attempt to blow up himself and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a mosque in Karachi in 2002.
He is also accused of delivering $50,000 of al Qaeda cash to the group that drove a deadly truck bomb into the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003. Eight people were killed in the blast and scores were wounded.
Both acts were tests assigned to him by Mohammed in order to prove Khan's commitment to martyrdom and his potential as an al Qaeda operative, according to a 2008 prisoner assessment prepared for the commander of the Guantanamo detention operation.
The charges say the assassination plot was foiled when Musharraf failed to show up at the mosque. But the Guantanamo assessment called the incident a "pseudo-suicide assassination attempt," and indicated Musharraf was never actually expected there.
Khan is a Pakistani citizen who moved to the Baltimore area with his family in 1996 at age 16, obtained legal residency and graduated from high school three years later. He worked at his family's gas station, then for the state of Maryland and an electronic data company and taught database programming at a local Islamic center.
According to the Guantanamo assessment, Khan met Mohammed after going to Pakistan in 2002 to attend family weddings and look for a bride of his own. The introduction was made by Khan's uncle and cousin who were described in the Guantanamo documents as al Qaeda operatives.
Khan began to study jihad and was allegedly selected by Mohammed to carry out attacks in the United States because he spoke English "like an American" and was familiar with U.S. society, according to the documents, which were made public by WikiLeaks.
Khan seemed to realize the bomb-vest incident was only a test because he did not see any explosives inside the vest or extra security at the mosque, the assessment said.
The charges allege that Mohammed asked Khan to return to the United States and blow up underground gasoline tanks. But Khan was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and turned over to U.S. custody.
He is not mentioned in the pending charges against Mohammed and four co-defendants. The charges note that Khan did not meet Mohammed until at least four months after the September 2001 plane hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.
But the charges suggest that Khan had enough knowledge about Mohammed to testify about his activities.
"He could say, 'This guy was an al Qaeda leader, he was a criminal mastermind and I took instructions from him on this and that.' ... That would be a way he could be a valuable witness in that case even if he didn't have the knowledge of the 9/11 attacks," said an attorney familiar with the case but did not want his name used.
Khan's fluent English would also make him at good witness in the Guantanamo tribunals, which have been bogged down by the need for interpreters.
Khan's case and others pending in the Guantanamo tribunals suggest prosecutors there are pursuing a strategy often used in criminal gang and mob prosecutions.
"You kind of start at the bottom and make deals and work your way up to the top," said Davis, who quit the Guantanamo prosecution in 2007 in a dispute over political interference. "If that's what they're planning, it would make eminent sense to start chipping away at the smaller fish."
Khan could also be a useful witness against Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian prisoner at Guantanamo who is known as Hambali and accused of arranging financing for the Jakarta Marriott bombing. Hambali has been designated by the Obama administration as eligible for trial in the Guantanamo tribunals, but has never been charged.
The charges allege that Khan also spent time with Mohammed's nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who is charged in the September 11 plot and accused of involvement in the money transfer for the Jakarta Marriott bombing.
Khan, Mohammed, Aziz Ali and Hambali are all being held at Guantanamo at a super-secret camp for "high-value" detainees, segregated from the general prisoner population.
Guantanamo prosecutors swore charges in May 2011 against Mohammed, Aziz Ali and three other captives accused in the September 11 attacks. The Pentagon official overseeing the trials is reviewing those charges to determine whether they should carry the death penalty and is expected to refer them for trial soon.
(Reporting By Jane Sutton; Editing by Peter Cooney)