Accused Qaeda Sleeper Agent in Court
New York Times –
By JOHN SCHWARTZ PEORIA, Ill. – Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, accused by the government of being a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda and held as an enemy combatant for almost six years, made his first appearance Monday afternoon in the courtroom where he will be …
Road leads back to Peoria for al-Marri
Accused terrorist Ali al-Marri is expected in U.S. District Court in Peoria on Monday.
Related Links Security tightened for al-Marri proceedings (03/22/09)
Al-Marri timeline (03/23/09)
Family wants fair judgment for al-Marri (03/23/09)
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An archive of Journal Star stories and editorials on al-Marri
By ANDY KRAVETZ
of the Journal Star
Posted Mar 22, 2009 @ 08:59 PM
Last update Mar 23, 2009 @ 11:23 AM
PEORIA — After nearly six years, alleged terrorist Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri is back in Peoria.
The road back for the former West Peoria resident included courthouses in Chicago, Charleston, S.C., Richmond, Va., and very nearly the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
It involved months upon months in military custody for al-Marri -held without charge – and allegations of mental and physical abuse against him at the hands of military officials. It finally took a new presidential administration before he would be on his way back, still in custody but at least with an idea of what his ultimate fate could be.
His supporters view the small-statured Qatari national as a victim of past national policies that treaded on human rights. His detractors say he’s dangerous and that his release could endanger American lives.
The alleged al-Qaida sleeper agent is expected to appear Monday in the same Peoria courtroom and before the same judge, U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm, as he did in 2003, when an order from then-President George W. Bush dismissed pending federal charges against him, declared him an “enemy combatant” and had him whisked away to a naval brig in South Carolina. That’s where he remained until this past weekend, when he arrived in Illinois late Friday night, sources told the Journal Star.
“It has dragged on for so long. Did he do something wrong or not?” asked Souhail Elhouar, a professor of civil engineering at Bradley University, which al-Marri studied. He recalls helping al-Marri find a doctor for his children and taking him to get his driver’s license a month or so before his mid-December 2001 arrest.
“So many people were just let go after being held for nothing (at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) for so many years. Where does this guy fall with respect to that? It’s a wait-and-see game, as I see it. I am sure everyone is very anxious to find out what will come of this trial,” he said.
On Feb. 26, al-Marri was indicted by a federal grand jury in Peoria on charges he conspired to help al-Qaida from July 2001 until his arrest on Dec. 12, 2001. A second charge accuses him of providing material support and resources to the terrorist group.
Officials have claimed he was to lead a second wave of terrorist attacks against the United States.
The hearing Monday afternoon will be brief and will involve al-Marri likely entering a plea of not guilty to the newly filed charges. Mihm will set a trial date for a few months from now. However, many think the trial won’t actually start for another year. From now and until the trial’s conclusion, al-Marri will remain locked up at the federal prison just outside of Pekin.
‘A victory after all those years’
His indictment was similar to typical conspiracy indictments returned every month in Peoria, in that it lacked details or mentioned specific acts, instead using broad language to describe the alleged conduct. Further information could be months in coming, as the two sides are expected to battle back and forth over the evidence.
Despite that, it’s clear that al-Marri’s attorneys view his mere presence in the criminal justice system a victory after all those years in a military cell.
“We are pleased that he will finally have his day in court, and that there is some finality, which has evaded him over these last seven and a half years,” said one of his attorneys, Lee Smith of Peoria.
Another of his attorneys, Andy Savage of Charleston, said he spoke to al-Marri on Friday, just before he was to leave the brig. His spirits were good, and he was “focused on his case.”
“He now knows there is some date when this will all end,” Savage said. “He knows he will have his chance in the American judicial system. That’s what troubled his family the most. They have great respect for the system here, but they never understood why he wasn’t handled in the American judicial system.”
That finality, the possible end to his indefinite incarceration, is what al-Marri’s legal team has long demanded.
Savage and others have claimed al-Marri’s living conditions were terrible at the brig at first. As time wore on, he was allowed to have some privileges, some religious materials and a chance to meet with his attorneys. He was barred, until last week, Savage said, from watching news or getting newspapers.
“He’s a huge fan of Jon Stewart,” Savage said. “They barred him from news, but not from the comedy channel, so he got his news from Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. I thought that was ironic, being barred from Tom Brook but not from Jon Stewart.”
Prosecutors have previously said that al-Marri returned to the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, to begin his mission. Among the previous terrorism-related allegations:
– That Al-Marri planned to hack into the main computers of U.S. banks to wipe out balances and otherwise wreak havoc with banking records in order to damage the U.S. economy.
– That he met Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, at a terrorist training camp and pledged his loyalty to him.
– That he was running a credit card scam to help fund al-Qaida.
He also has been linked to Mohammed Atta, one of the men who hijacked a plane used in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, whom federal officials have dubbed the hijackers’ money man.
Through his attorneys, al-Marri has repeatedly denied those allegations and said he was here in 2001 to pursue a graduate degree at Bradley, where he received an undergraduate business degree in 1991.
Bradley officials have said al-Marri, when he returned in 2001, was enrolled as a part-time undergraduate student taking computer science classes.
“Four of his family members were schooled in the United States, including Naji (an older brother), who went to Bradley in the 1980s,” Savage said.
‘Nothing out of the ordinary’
Al-Marri, his wife and their five children lived in Edgewood Apartments on West Radan Court, less than a half mile from Farmington Road.
But as the FBI ramped up its investigation, his wife and children grew isolated, as many of the area’s roughly 3,000 Muslims opted to stay away for fear of getting caught up in the dragnet.
The family left Peoria soon after his arrest, and in early 2003 returned to his wife’s home in Saudi Arabia.
The few who knew him have said al-Marri was quiet, unassuming man who kept largely to himself.
He was “a nice guy who blended in well. There was nothing out of the ordinary,'” Elhouar said back in 2003.
Looking back on it now, the Bradley professor stands by that assertion. Al-Marri would come by the Peoria Islamic Center with his family, but Elhouar doesn’t remember anything that put him into a different category than anyone else. He was just one of the people praying at the mosque.
Al-Marri’s 2001 arrest was the talk of the community then. Now, at least among Elhouar’s friends, not so much.
“It’s funny you asked that, None of my friends have brought up the subject,” he said. “I really haven’t heard anything about him.
“But so much has happened in the eight years since. With all the changes in the world, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with this trial.”
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.