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The Case Against the Last 'Enemy Combatant'

POSTED: 03:24 PM ET, 02/26/2009 by Derek Kravitz

The country's only designated enemy combatant, Qatar-born Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, an alleged sleeper agent for al-Qaeda, is set to be charged with providing support to terrorism in federal court -- in an unprecedented move for prosecutors.

Marri, who for 5 1/2 years has been held in a naval brig in Charleston, S.C., will be charged in federal court in Illinois, instead of through the special military tribunal system set up under the Bush administration, The Post's Carrie Johnson and Julie Tate report today, quoting unidentified sources.

The move comes after President Obama ordered the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a dramatic overhaul of the nation's system of prosecuting suspected terrorists.

It's been seven years since Marri was apprehended in Peoria, Ill., where he was studying computer science at Bradley University (timeline).

In 2003, he was named an enemy combatant -- the only foreigner arrested within the United States to be deemed so -- and moved to the South Carolina brig where his attorneys claim he was tortured, including being subjected to stress positions, sensory deprivation and threats.

In a commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy in May 2007, then-President Bush disclosed that investigators believe Marri may have been plotting to attack other targets after Sept. 11, including "water reservoirs, the New York Stock Exchange and United States military academies such as this one."

The Pentagon has called him a "continuing grave danger to the national security." But he was not questioned by authorities after the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that alleged enemy combatants held in the United States have a right to counsel. Other appeals courts further scuttled the administration's questioning and detention of Marri.

Now, a trial in open court, with attorneys presenting their evidence, might help answer some of the lingering questions about Marri's actions and motives.

As then-Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt noted in an exhaustive examination of Marri in 2007, the questions include:

What was behind his travels between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and the United States? What was the purpose of his computer research on hacking, and on how to buy and mix large quantities of chemicals into deadly hydrogen cyanide gas? Why did he possess more than 1,000 stolen credit card numbers? Does he have a connection to Dhiren Barot, the now-jailed British al-Qaeda leader who plotted to blow up buildings in the United States and England, and who may have inspired last month's attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow?

Through interviews with dozens of intelligence and law enforcement officials, diplomats, lawyers, college officials, and others in the United State and overseas, Schmidt described Marri's "path from ponytailed university student to terrorism suspect."

Some of the highlights after the jump:

  • Marri's family is originally from Saudi Arabia, where family members maintained a camel farm in the desert. Marri's father was a border agent in Doha, Qatar, allowing his children to apply for free education in the West.
  • Ali al-Marri and his older brother, Nagy, had spent roughly a decade studying at schools in rural Illinois. Marri returned to the United States with his wife and five children in 2001.
  • Acquaintances at Bradley described Marri as a "skinny, long-haired party-goer with a sense of humor." He graduated in 1991 with a business degree and returned home. He later told the FBI that he worked a few years at the Qatar Islamic Bank in Doha and at the government audit bureau.
  • In the mid-to-late 1990s, Marri headed to Afghanistan to training camps set up by Osama bin Laden, according to a court filing by the Pentagon's top counterterrorism official. His handler, authorities say, became Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
  • U.S. intelligence officials believe that Marri trained for two years in Afghanistan, among other things receiving instruction in the use of poisons and toxins at the Derunta camp near Jalalabad, sources said.
  • By 2000, Marri's brothers and parents had returned to the Saudi desert. Marri's young wife and children moved there, too.
  • Marri did not follow his family back to the camel farm. Instead, in May 2000, he flew to Chicago from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, using a fake passport and the name Abdullakareem A. Almuslam, according to the FBI. He spent some of the next two months in Chicago. In July, he surfaced in Macomb, a farm town where he had studied nearly 15 years earlier. He stayed about a month, U.S. officials say.
  • While there, Marri registered a sham business he called AAA Carpet and opened three bank accounts with a stolen Social Security number, the government alleges. He is accused of then using stolen credit card numbers to make fictitious purchases from the carpet business and setting up an Internet account that could move money.
  • Two days after the 2001 attacks, Peoria police arrested Marri on a 10-year-old warrant for a charge of driving under the influence. Marri opened a briefcase and paid $300 in bond money in cash. The FBI was called.
  • Marri's hurried arrival on Sept. 11, barely under the deadline for late enrollment, also raised suspicion, as did his travels in August 2000 that coincidentally matched the travels of a convicted British terrorist.
  • In late November 2001, the FBI was alerted that an active phone number in their region was linked to the Sept. 11 plotters. Marri had been calling other numbers, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to the complaint. Intelligence and law enforcement sources say he was calling senior al-Qaeda operatives.
  • Marri was soon arrested as a "material witness" in a terrorism investigation and sent to New York, where he was held in a high-security unit of the federal jail.
  • Prosecutors in New York dropped the material-witness warrant and held Marri on relatively minor charges of credit card fraud. In December 2002, a year after he was arrested, he was charged with lying to the FBI about his travels and calls.
  • In March 2003, Mohammed was captured in a safe house in Pakistan, along with a treasure-trove of material from his computer and telephones. He revealed several "second wave" plotters and facilitators who were dispatched before the 2001 attacks, including Marri.
  • In June 2003, Bush declared Marri an enemy combatant.

By Derek Kravitz |  February 26, 2009; 3:24 PM ET
Previous: What Did Thain Say in Closed-Door Meeting? | Next: Senate Panel to Probe CIA, Banned Firms Get U.S. Contracts, SEC Alerted on Stanford in '03

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