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Suspect Is Declared an Enemy Combatant

June 24, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Monday dropped criminal charges against a Qatari man who was in the United States on a student visa and instead declared him an "enemy combatant" who allegedly led an effort to settle Al Qaeda "sleeper" operatives in this country.

President Bush signed the order switching control of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, 37, from the Justice Department to the Pentagon -- the first time such a transfer has occurred.

The change in Al-Marri's status denies him nearly all of the rights afforded criminal suspects in civilian court, including access to a lawyer and a show-cause hearing before a judge, senior administration officials said. As an enemy combatant, he could eventually be tried before a military tribunal.

In a one-page letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush said he made the decision "based on evidence available ... from all sources."

That evidence, Bush wrote, indicated that since Al-Marri entered the United States in early September 2001, he had "engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and warlike acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism."

"Mr. Al-Marri represents a continuing present and grave danger to the national security of the United States, and the detention of Mr. Al-Marri is necessary to prevent him from aiding Al Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States," Bush wrote.

Along with Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, Al-Marri is the third person publicly designated by name as an enemy combatant since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and the only one who is not a U.S. citizen.

Hamdi, a Saudi born in Louisiana, was captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan, while Padilla, a native of New York, was held in connection with an alleged Al Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the United States.

Hundreds of unidentified men captured during the war in Afghanistan also are being detained and interrogated at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon confirmed Monday that the Department of Defense had transported Al-Marri from Illinois to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., the same place where Padilla is being held. Hamdi is in a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va.

Al-Marri, also known as Abdullakareem A. Almuslam, has been in federal custody since December 2001. A 1991 graduate of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., he is a native of Saudi Arabia who holds Qatari citizenship.

Al-Marri initially was interviewed by the FBI in October 2001 at his home in Peoria, and he was arrested two months later as a material witness in the investigation into the terrorist attacks. He was subsequently accused of lying to the FBI and committing credit card fraud.

Prosecutors said they have evidence that Al-Marri made a series of calls to a number in the United Arab Emirates associated with Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi, a top Al Qaeda financier linked to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Al-Marri has denied the allegation, prosecutors said.

Al-Marri's laptop computer contained evidence of suspicious activity, prosecutors said -- including hundreds of stolen credit card numbers that authorities asserted were to be used to fund terrorist activity.

The FBI also found an Arabic oath or prayer asking God to "protect" and "guard" Osama bin Laden, audio files containing lectures by Bin Laden and his associates, photographs of the Sept. 11 attacks and lists of Web sites with titles such as "Jihad arena," "Taliban" and "martyrs," according to the complaint against Al-Marri.

Senior Bush administration officials said that the decision to designate Al-Marri as an enemy combatant came in part because of recently obtained information indicating that he remained a threat to national security, with knowledge of ongoing terrorist plots and operatives on American soil.

An Al Qaeda detainee "in a position to know" identified Al-Marri "as an Al Qaeda sleeper operative who was tasked to help new Al Qaeda operatives get settled in the United States for follow-on attacks after 9/11," said Alice Fisher, deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division.

Several U.S. officials identified the detainee as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's operations chief, who was arrested March 1 in Pakistan. The officials said Mohammed not only named Al-Marri, but also said that he had given Al-Marri the job of helping set up sleeper cells because he spoke English well and because his life as a student and a family man -- he and his wife had five children -- wouldn't attract suspicion.

Fisher said other detainees confirmed that Al-Marri had been to the Al Faruq training camp in Afghanistan, where he met with Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members.

Fisher stressed that Al-Marri wasn't handed over to the military because of lack of evidence in the criminal case.

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