Al-Marri Indicted on Terrorism Charges

Lone "enemy combatant" held in U.S. faces charges that he helped al Qaeda.

February 27, 2009, 12:53 PM

Feb. 27, 2009— -- A federal grand jury in Peoria, Ill., has charged the lone "enemy combatant" held on U.S. soil with two counts of providing material support to al Qaeda, paving the way for his release from military custody into the criminal justice system.

The indictment against Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, filed Thursday and unsealed today, marks a dramatic shift from the Bush administration's stance that the United States could indefinitely detain terror suspects caught in the U.S. without filing charges.

The indictment "shows our resolve to protect the American people and prosecute alleged terrorists to the full extent of the law," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

"In this administration," he continued, "we will hold accountable anyone who attempts to do harm to Americans, and we will do so in a manner consistent with our values."

Asked why the two-page indictment was lacking specific details of al-Marri's alleged support to al Qaeda, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "We will introduce our evidence at trial and intend to prove our case there. We look forward to prosecuting this case in the criminal justice system and presenting the evidence for a jury to decide al-Marri's guilt or innocence."

One day before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Marri and his family legally entered the United States so he could begin a master's degree program at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. He had received a bachelor's degree from the same school in 1991.

The U.S. government alleged that he repeatedly attempted to contact an al Qaeda leader suspected of financing the Sept. 11 attacks as part of his alleged involvement as a "sleeper agent," laying in wait to take part in a suspected second-wave attack.

Al-Marri has maintained that he is innocent.

"He understands the charges against him and he's looking forward to switching from military custody to civilian custody," his criminal defense attorney, Andy Savage, told ABC News. "He's looking forward to addressing the allegations against him."

At the time of al-Marri's arrest, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft compared him to Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the group of hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

The government's argument at the time was that the priority was to get information out of al-Marri about potential upcoming terrorist plots, as opposed to trying him for alleged crimes.

Al-Marri as an 'Enemy Combatant'

Al-Marri, who is a dual citizen of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has been in U.S. custody since his December 2001 arrest but was transferred to the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., in 2003 after President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

Bush had signed executive order declaring that al-Marri was "closely associated" with al Qaeda and had "engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and warlike acts."

The Justice Department had previously charged al-Marri with credit card fraud, false statements and identity fraud, but the government dropped those charges before his transfer to the navy brig.

After the Justice Department secured the latest indictment against al-Marri Thursday, President Obama directed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to transfer al-Marri into federal law enforcement custody.

Before the transfer takes place, however, the Supreme Court must rule on a motion to be filed later today by the DOJ Solicitor General's office.

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a case challenging al-Marri's detention this April, but the Justice Department will ask the court to dismiss the case because of the indictment.

But American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jonathan Hafetz, who is representing al-Marri in the Supreme Court case challenging his detention, said yesterday that it is "vital" that the Supreme Court case move forward "because it must be made clear once and for all that indefinite military detention of persons arrested in the U.S. is illegal and that this will never happen again."

The ACLU claims that while in custody at the naval brig, the U.S. government held al-Marri incommunicado for more than a year and subjected him to torture and other abuses.

Court records filed, challenging al-Marri's custody by the military, indicate that there were videotapes of the interrogations at the brig in Charleston, S.C. The Defense Department has declined to release any tapes to al Marri's lawyers or the public.

Hafetz, who met with al-Marri Wednesday, did acknowledge yesterday that the government's decision to seek charges against al-Marri is "an important step in restoring the rule of law."

Al-Marri Says He Wants a 'Fair Trial'

The move to charge al-Marri was widely expected in the legal community, in part because of the unique and narrow aspects of his case -- he is the only legal resident alien who is in detention in the U.S. without charges against him.

The Obama administration had asked the Supreme Court for more time to file papers in the case while it decided how it would proceed against al-Marri.

In a report in The New Yorker published earlier this week, al-Marri said through his lawyers that he is "not asking to be taken at my word and to be released, although I very much want to go home to my family."

He continued, saying that what he does want is "to be treated like every other person in the United States who is accused of a crime, including terrorism, and to be given a fair trial in an American court."

ABC News' Jan Crawford Greenburg and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.

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