Trail of an ‘Enemy Combatant’: From Desert to U.S. Heartland


By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007; A01

PEORIA, Ill. — The 37-year-old computer science student was racing against a deadline. Just one day after picking up his visa from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar, he boarded a plane with his wife and five small children. The family flew to Chicago, caught a night’s sleep at an airport hotel, then squeezed into a taxi for a 200-mile ride through farm country to Peoria.

That morning in New York, the twin towers were comin g down.

Within weeks, a string of tips would lead FBI agents to the doorstep of the student, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. They eventually came to believe that he was al-Qaeda’s senior operative in the United States, a sleeper agent who made an unexplained one-day trip to New York City in the summer of 2000 and who was planning a second wave of attacks.

Yet after more than five years of imprisonment, Marri remains a curiously unknown figure. The investigation of his activities has been shrouded in secrecy. The Sept. 11 commission deliberately left his name out of its 567-page report. President Bush named him an enemy combatant in 2003 — the only foreigner arrested on U.S. soil to be so designated — but public attention has focused largely on his rights as a wartime captive.

In a commencement speech in May at the Coast Guard Academy, Bush mentioned Marri for the first time, hinting at why investigators have been so intent on learning what he might know about other sleeper agents. The president said the intelligence community believes that among Marri’s potential targets were “water reservoirs, the New York Stock Exchange and United States military academies such as this one.”

Marri maintained his innocence during interrogation sessions early in his confinement, his lawyers said. The Pentagon, which last year called Marri a “continuing grave danger to the national security,” stopped questioning him after the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that alleged enemy combatants held in the United States have a right to counsel. He remains at a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., waiting for the outcome of the battle over his status.

Beneath the legal maneuvers are mysteries that Marri has never addressed:

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?

And was he rushing to the American heartland on Sept. 10, 2001, on orders from Osama bin Laden, or to beat the cutoff date for college enrollment?

Child of the Desert

Interviews with dozens of intelligence and law enforcement officials, diplomats, lawyers, college officials, and others here and abroad, as well as court documents, shed light on Marri’s path from ponytailed university student to terrorism suspect. Some sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because aspects of the case remain classified; several said they were uneasy being quoted by name about a matter involving al-Qaeda.

By origin, Marri’s family is Saudi, and it still maintains a camel farm in the Saudi Arabian desert, a tie to its Bedouin roots. In the 1970s, hundreds of members of the larger tribe took advantage of an invitation from Qatar’s emir to emigrate to his country, where there were more jobs than workers. Marri’s father became a border agent and was granted citizenship. He moved his family to Doha, the capital, where as citizens his children were eligible for free education in the West.

Ali al-Marri, who spent part of his childhood in the Saudi desert region, was 17 when he and his older brother Nagy set off for their American schooling in 1982. Marri’s trip to Illinois with his wife and children in 2001 was a return to familiar territory: The brothers had spent about a decade studying at Peoria’s Bradley University and on various campuses in rural Illinois.

Marri studied beginning computer science for a semester at tiny Spoon River College in Macomb, Ill. The farm town, which would figure in Marri’s later travels, attracted a community of Middle Eastern students because of the intensive English program offered by another school there, Western Illinois University.

Eventually the brothers transferred to Bradley, a respected private university where student life revolves around fraternities and basketball. Ali al-Marri, whom acquaintances remember as a skinny, long-haired partygoer with a sense of humor, graduated in 1991 with a business degree. He returned home and later told the FBI that he worked a few years at the Qatar Islamic Bank in Doha and at the government audit bureau.

The country the brothers returned to was not the one they had left. Qatar was modernizing rapidly. The emir’s son, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, was pushing development of the country’s vast energy reserves. In 1995, while the father was out of the country, the son staged a coup.

Many in the extended Marri tribe were loyal to the old emir, and in early 1996 dozens of them were publicly implicated in a failed attempt to overthrow the son and return the father to power.

In the midst of that family turmoil, Ali al-Marri left again, this time for Afghanistan, according to family acquaintances and U.S. officials. No longer the carefree college student of his Bradley days, he headed to training camps set up by bin Laden, according to a court filing by the Pentagon’s top counterterrorism official.

Marri followed a track parallel to that of the man who would become the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and who, federal agents allege, became Marri’s al-Qaeda handler: Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Like Marri, Mohammed attended college in the United States during the 1980s, in his case in rural North Carolina, and ended up in Qatar.

By the mid-1990s, Mohammed had taken part in a host of terrorist plots, including helping his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, finance the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mohammed and a group of militants found refuge on the outskirts of Doha, on a farm owned by the religion minister, according to the Sept. 11 commission. In 1996, as the FBI was closing in, Mohammed slipped out of the country for Afghanistan.

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. He is believed to have trained under Abu Khabab al-Masri, an Egyptian specialist in chemical and biological weapons who was killed in an airstrike in Pakistan last year.

When Marri returned to Doha, according to people who knew his family there, his long beard and radical beliefs stood out. His brothers told acquaintances that he was a jihadi who had trained in bin Laden’s camps. One of those acquaintances, a former Qatari government official, told The Washington Post that Marri came home with CDs of al-Qaeda training lectures and propaganda, as well as a phony California driver’s license.

Peter Theros, who was U.S. ambassador to Qatar in the 1990s, said that while the religious ideology there is nominally akin to that in Saudi Arabia, Qatar is “far more tolerant and democratic” than its neighbor. “Ali al-Marri is different. Even deeply religious Qataris are not like that,” Theros said.

Not long after Marri’s return to Qatar, the continuing investigation of the 1996 coup attempt cost some of his relatives their citizenship and their government jobs. By 2000, Marri’s brothers and parents had returned to the Saudi desert. Marri’s young wife and children moved there, too.

At the Time Out Motel

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, the farm town where he had studied nearly 15 years earlier. He checked into the seedy, $22-a-night Time Out Motel, next to the raucous Dog Pound bar, popular with students. 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.

Then “Almuslam” made the trip that has most concerned and puzzled counterterrorism officials.

On Aug. 17, 2000, he called a travel agent to book a flight to New York, the FBI says. He also called the imam of the Macomb mosque, a Saudi graduate student named Khalid al-Jaloud, and asked for a ride to the Peoria airport, Jaloud recalled in an interview with The Post. Jaloud said he did not know the man who called himself Almuslam and did not ask where he was going. He said he often got calls from Arab students asking for aid.

Airline records show that on Aug. 18, 2000, “Almuslam” flew from Peoria to New York.

What he was doing in the city that day is not known. But the coincidences are suggestive. Dhiren Barot, al-Qaeda’s chief operative in Britain, was already in New York. He had flown in from London a day earlier to case the stock exchange and other financial targets, according to a 2005 indictment in U.S. District Court in New York.

In his comments on Marri in May, Bush alleged for the first time that the stock exchange was one of his intended targets.

Barot, who was arrested in Britain in 2004 and sentenced to life in prison last fall, confessed to what the judge in the case called a plot of “colossal and unprecedented scale” to blow up London subway cars, detonate radioactive “dirty bombs” and use limousines packed with gas cylinders to destroy luxury hotels.

He and his accomplices also admitted conducting elaborate videotaped reconnaissance on the stock exchange, the World Bank and other financial centers in New York and Washington in 2000 and 2001, obtaining building plans and security procedures. The discovery of those plans and videos in a 2004 raid on an al-Qaeda house in Pakistan prompted U.S. officials to raise the terrorism threat level and led to Barot’s arrest.

After “Almuslam’s” trip to New York, he flew back to Chicago and days later returned to Saudi Arabia. And he left something behind.

“He asked me to put a computer in my house,” Jaloud said. “I did not want to. He said he wanted to store stuff until he could bring his family back.”

Jaloud said he reluctantly agreed to keep the computer in the basement of the mosque. “A few weeks or a month or two later he started calling, wanting me to send it to Pakistan. He told me he is there,” Jaloud said, adding that the request worried him. “He called two or three times and argued.”

Finally, Jaloud said, another man called the mosque and asked him to ship the computer to an address in Washington. Jaloud said he did so, paying for it himself.

Jaloud returned to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2001. U.S. officials were not permitted to interview him, but Saudi authorities questioned him in 2005 and shared the information with the FBI, according to U.S. authorities. Jaloud said he told the Saudis that he did not remember the address in Washington where he sent the computer. He now lives in Scotland, where he is pursuing a PhD in sports studies at the University of Stirling.

‘Bundles of Hundreds’

Two days after the 2001 attacks, Peoria police officer Greg Metz watched a car go by with a 6-year-old boy standing in the back seat.

Metz immediately pulled the car over. The driver was Marri. A license check turned up a 10-year-old warrant for a charge of driving under the influence, a legacy of his undergraduate days.

Marri still had long hair, but he was groomed and polite. He told Metz that he was back in Peoria to study for a master’s degree in computer science at Bradley. The officer explained that he would have to take Marri to jail, where he could post bond. They stopped to drop the boy off at the family’s motel room.

What happened next prompted Metz to call the police department’s liaison officer with the FBI. Marri “opens a briefcase and peels off $300 in bond money,” Metz said. “The briefcase was filled with bundles of hundreds.”

U.S. authorities allege that Marri had gone to the United Arab Emirates in August 2001 to get more than $13,000 in cash from Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the alleged paymaster for the Sept. 11 plotters.

Metz’s call wasn’t the only one about Marri to reach the Springfield FBI office in the days after Sept. 11, when thousands of tips about Arab men poured in to law enforcement offices around the country. A cellphone salesman called, as did someone who saw something suspicious in Marri’s effort to ship a big steamer trunk from Chicago to Peoria. Bradley University officials also told the FBI that they were suspicious about Marri’s hurried arrival on Sept. 11, barely under the deadline for late enrollment.

On Oct. 2, FBI agents Nicholas Zambeck and Robert Brown knocked on the door of Marri’s new apartment on the edge of town. Marri obliged them when they asked to come in and have a look at the steamer trunk, which contained just clothing and spices. The apartment was sparsely furnished, Zambeck would later testify, with a television, bedding on the floor and a few chairs.

The agents left after asking about Marri’s travels to the United States and about a possible issue with his Social Security number, which was resolved the next day.

Marri was soon raising more suspicions, though — this time back in Macomb. Several times that fall, he made the 90-minute drive to the tiny town west of Peoria. He pushed for admittance to Western Illinois University’s intensive English program, but school officials were puzzled and wary. “His English was fine,” said former Western administrator Julie Rose. “He had been through two or three English programs already.”

Marri would not provide a home address or sign the application. “He was a very pugnacious individual,” Rose said. “He was calling students. It just seemed strange” — so much so that she warned a Saudi student who was trying to help him. “I said, ‘Don’t get involved with this guy, be careful — we don’t know who this guy is.’ ”

That student was Jaloud, the imam. His wife and Marri’s had met at a Peoria mosque and had become friendly, Jaloud told The Post. He said he did not recognize Marri as “Almuslam,” whose computer he had stored in his mosque’s basement the previous summer.

Though remote, the Islamic Center of Macomb had come to the attention of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Several Muslim students raised concerns about financial irregularities there, according to local law enforcement and college officials and a former student.

The Islamic Assembly of North America, an organization that the government accused of creating Web sites to promote violent jihad, contributed $10,000 to the mosque, according to documents filed in federal court in a 2003 terrorism case. Several members of the Macomb mosque’s board had dealings with the group, those records show.

The Dulles Clue

Before Marri could relocate to Macomb, he came to the FBI’s attention again.

In late November 2001, the bureau’s Springfield office was alerted by headquarters that an active phone number in their region was linked to the Sept. 11 plotters.

In a hijacker’s car left at Dulles International Airport, authorities had found an express-mail receipt; it led them to a phone number that belonged to Hawsawi. The FBI learned that some calls to that number were made from cellphones and pay phones in the wee hours of the night from central Illinois, by someone using prepaid phone cards and PINs.

Investigators discovered that on Nov. 4, someone using a Qwest card and PIN called the Hawsawi number from a Chicago pay phone. On Nov. 7, someone used the same calling card from Marri’s home phone, according to a criminal complaint later filed against him. The FBI then confirmed through cellphone records that Marri had been in Chicago at the time of the pay-phone call.

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.

The government’s interest in Marri was soon heightened further. In mid-November 2001, al-Qaeda’s senior military commander, Muhammad Atef, was killed in a U.S. rocket attack on an Afghan safe house. The CIA discovered a wealth of information among his possessions and on his computer.

“When he was killed, we found out there was a huge al-Qaeda interest in chemical and biological weapons,” said an intelligence source knowledgeable about the investigations of both Atef and Marri. That prompted “a very energetic effort to identify people doing chem-bio.” Materials recovered from Atef’s safe house, the source said, revealed that Marri might be one of them. He and Atef had “shared contacts,” the source said.

On Dec. 11, FBI agents Zambeck and Brown returned to Marri’s apartment with more questions. He allowed them to look at his laptop computer and documents in his possession, including a scrap of paper in his wallet. When they asked whether he had called the number associated with Hawsawi, he denied doing so.

The next day, Marri was 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.

Over the next few weeks, the FBI said, agents discovered extensive research on Marri’s computer about purchasing large quantities of chemicals used to manufacture hydrogen cyanide, a deadly compound used in a failed 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. The same group had killed 12 people and sickened thousands with a nerve gas attack on the subway that year. Intelligence agencies were learning that the cult’s activities were of great interest to al-Qaeda.

In an almanac in Marri’s apartment, agents found that information about railroads, U.S. dams and reservoirs had been bookmarked.

“The feeling was he was engaged in operational research, identifying targets and materials,” the intelligence source said. “We think al-Marri was here to carry out attacks, as part of a second or third wave. We rolled al-Marri up quickly because we did not want to take any chances at that time. We were not letting things play out because we were not sure we could control it.”

Marri’s files contained more than 1,000 credit card numbers, most already used in frauds, and long lists of Web sites about computer hacking and obtaining false identifications, investigators alleged in charges filed against him. There were also sites on weapons and satellite equipment, audio files of bin Laden lectures, and this oath in Arabic:

“Neither the United States nor anyone living in it will dream of security/safety before we live it in Palestine and before the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed.”

Deadly ‘Invention’

Jotted on the scrap of paper from Marri’s wallet were five e-mail addresses that he said were his, according to the FBI. Three contained a draft message, addressed but not sent, to an e-mail account that the government said is linked to Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

“I have tried to contact you at your uncle ottowa but I could not get in,” the message said in part.

Agents discovered that Marri had created all five e-mail accounts on Sept. 22, 2001, from a computer at Western Illinois University.

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 the calls to Hawsawi. He had told the agents he’d last been in the United States in 1991 — omitting the 2000 visit to Illinois and New York.

Prosecutors said they would seek a sentence of up to 20 years because Marri’s alleged crimes were intended to further terrorism. In response his attorneys withdrew approval for moving the cases to New York. That sent the matter back to Illinois, where the lawyers would have gotten a second chance to persuade a judge to suppress evidence from Marri’s laptop and his statements to Zambeck and Brown.

But before that happened, a series of events took place that would culminate in Bush’s ordering Marri into military custody. On March 1, 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, according to the Sept. 11 commission. Marri was among them, counterterrorism sources said.

In a statement to federal court in South Carolina last year, Jeffrey N. Rapp, the Pentagon’s senior counterintelligence officer, wrote that Mohammed viewed Marri as “an ideal sleeper agent” because he had a U.S. college degree and could travel with his family.

The government said Rapp’s statement was based on multiple sources, including the FBI, the CIA and interrogations of captured al-Qaeda leaders. He wrote that Mohammed and bin Laden decided in the summer of 2001 that Marri should get to the United States before Sept. 11, “to establish cover,” and that he would act as a “point of contact for al Qaeda operatives arriving in the United States.”

“Al Marri currently possesses information of high intelligence value, including information about personnel and activities of al Qaeda,” Rapp wrote.

An analyst knowledgeable about what Mohammed — also known as KSM — has said in interrogations said that Marri “was a big deal to KSM. KSM trusted his intellect. . . . He could flash his jihadi credentials, and he could operate as a graduate student. He could serve as a docking station for an Atta-like person.”

The Pentagon also learned that Marri’s younger brother Jarallah had been in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and was being held as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay. Mohammed had met with Jarallah al-Marri in late summer 2001 and told him of his brother’s U.S. activities, according to Rapp.

Just before Mohammed’s capture, Department of Homeland Security officials raised the national threat alert, saying al-Qaeda was plotting a chemical or biological attack, possibly on New York subways. George J. Tenet, then CIA director, cited the possible use of chlorine or cyanide gases. New York police put the city on something close to its own “code red.”

Some of what was going on behind the scenes at the time was revealed in Tenet’s recent memoir and in author Ron Suskind’s “The One Percent Doctrine,” published last year, though neither book mentions Marri.

Saudi authorities, working with the CIA, had arrested a group of suspected extremists and discovered on one of their computers an al-Qaeda blueprint for a simple device to mix hydrogen cyanide gas from easily obtained chemicals and then disperse it. They called it the “mobtakker” — Arabic for “invention.” Such a device would solve the problem that caused the Tokyo attack to fail.

“When people were looking at the mobtakker, clearly al-Marri’s name came very much to the fore,” an intelligence source said.

Nothing about the device appeared on Marri’s computer, but there were records of his searches for “technical and ordering information on various cyanides,” Rapp’s declaration said. It called Marri’s interest in sulfuric acid “noteworthy” because it is an ingredient “in a hydrogen cyanide binary device.” The mobtakker would be such a device.

Then a CIA informant disclosed that al-Qaeda’s chief in Saudi Arabia, Yusef al-Ayiri — then known to the agency only as “Swift Sword” — was planning a mobtakker attack on the New York subways. Ayiri had traveled to Pakistan in January 2003 to inform al-Qaeda’s leadership that a subway attack would be carried out in 45 days.

“Chillingly,” Tenet wrote in his book, “word came back from Ayman al-Zawahiri himself in early 2003 to cancel the operation and recall the operatives, who were already staged in New York, because ‘we have something better in mind.’ ”

Counterterrorism officials were desperate to locate the cell members. “Since al-Marri was already in custody by then he couldn’t have been an active participant, but who he was in contact with might have led to the people who were involved in the plot,” the intelligence source said.

The CIA’s hopes of learning more from Ayiri were dashed when, on May 31, 2003, he was killed in a gun battle with Saudi police.

Three weeks later, on June 23, Bush declared Marri an enemy combatant.

‘Dreams of Home’

Marri was immediately whisked to the Navy brig in South Carolina. The only outsiders allowed to see him were military interrogators.

Jonathan Hafetz, one of Marri’s lawyers, contends that isolation and harsh conditions imposed during the first years of his confinement as an enemy combatant were “tantamount to torture.” Still, he said, Marri has not wavered: He denies telephoning Hawsawi or being part of al-Qaeda.

Pentagon efforts to question Marri ended in 2004.

“In interrogation sessions he has maintained his innocence. They didn’t get him to falsely confess,” Hafetz said. The Rapp declaration, he asserts, is based in part on “multiple hearsay” from Mohammed and others who have been subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.

Marri remains at the center of a key constitutional test of whether the president has the authority to indefinitely hold someone picked up on U.S. soil as a wartime captive. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in Marri’s favor last month. The government has appealed, and the case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

If the court decides that the president overstepped his authority in declaring Marri an enemy combatant, the Justice Department may seek to build a terrorism case against him in criminal court. If the Bush administration prevails, Marri would be tried before a military commission, where information about him is likely to be kept narrowly circumscribed.

Andrew Savage, another member of Marri’s legal team, said the conditions of his client’s confinement have improved dramatically since 2005, when his lawyers sued over his treatment. Savage now visits him frequently, as does an imam and a representative of the International Red Cross. The lawyer said he would like to see a diplomatic resolution in which Marri is turned over to the government of Qatar. “He dreams of going home,” Savage said.

Savage said Marri is very religious but not a political fanatic. “He is very strong politically about Americans being involved in Arab affairs,” he said. “I have not seen any inkling of hatred.”

During the more than five years of Marri’s custody, his lawyers said, they have never spoken with him about the specifics of the government’s claims. They have not offered an explanation for the phone records showing calls to al-Qaeda operatives, for the computer material on chemical weapons or for the evidence that he traveled to New York in the summer of 2000.

“We haven’t drilled down on those allegations,” Savage said. “There’s no reason to. He’s not really charged with anything. He said he is innocent, he’s not a sleeper agent — at that point we left it at that.”

Staff writer Sari Horwitz, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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