Va. man charged in plot to kill Bush

He conspired on assassination scheme, aided al-Qaida network, U.S. alleges

February 23, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A Virginia man who spent 20 months in a Saudi prison without being charged appeared unexpectedly in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va., yesterday and was charged with plotting to assassinate President Bush and supporting the al-Qaida network.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, an American citizen from Falls Church, who was valedictorian of his high school class, was charged with six counts of conspiracy and providing support to terrorists, including participation in a plot to kill the president with a car bomb or by shooting him in public. A 16-page indictment, unsealed yesterday, also alleges that Abu Ali received training in weapons, explosives and document forgery from al-Qaida associates and that he received a "religious blessing" for his assassination plans.

Abu Ali did not enter a plea at his brief court hearing, but 100 or more of his supporters let out an audible laugh when a summary of the assassination plot was read aloud. Many of those supporters have lobbied Congress and the State Department and fought in court for the past year or more to secure the 23-year-old student's release, saying he was being held illegally and tortured by Saudi interrogators in cooperation with U.S. officials. His lengthy detention in Saudi Arabia fueled claims that American terrorism investigators are torturing suspects in foreign jails.

Abu Ali's father said after the hearing: "It's all lies," and his lawyer said Abu Ali will plead innocent. A detention hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.

"I think the government realized that they couldn't participate in a secret cover-up any longer and needed to charge him with something," said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, an advocacy group that has worked on Abu Ali's behalf. "I find it peculiar that it took this long."

According to court records, Abu Ali was born in Houston and graduated high school from the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria. He traveled to Saudi Arabia several years ago to study at a university in Medina and was arrested - allegedly at the behest of American investigators - on June 9, 2003, while taking his final exam. Seven days later FBI agents raided his home in Falls Church and found books, audio tapes and documents promoting terrorism, along with a six-page document explaining how to avoid government surveillance.

The indictment claims Abu Ali, while in Saudi Arabia, tried to join the al-Qaida network and plan terrorist attacks against the United States. He also reportedly sought to travel to Afghanistan to fight American soldiers, but was denied a visa when he attempted to travel through Iran.

Without offering details, the indictment says Abu Ali met with 11 unnamed coconspirators, offering himself as sympathetic to al-Qaida and willing to carry out attacks on its behalf. In late 2002 or early 2003, the indictment claims, he moved into a home with six al-Qaida associates, and later purchased a laptop computer and cellular telephone "for the purposes of providing material support and resources to al Qaida."

"It was (Abu Ali's) intent to become a planner of terrorist operations like Muhammad Atta and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, well-known al Qaida terrorists associated with the attacks on September 11, 2001," the indictment says.

The indictment offers scant details about his alleged attempt to assassinate Bush, and a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice - which doesn't mention the plot until its second page - did not provide more information. Abu Ali was not charged under the federal law that prohibits conspiring to assassinate the president, which carries a possible death sentence. He faces as many as 80 years in prison if convicted on all six counts of conspiracy and aiding terrorists.

"There is no greater priority for the Department of Justice than the protection of American citizens from terrorist attacks," said Assistant Attorney General Christopher A. Wray, in a statement.

According to court records and other documents related to the case, a grand jury initially investigated links between Abu Ali and a group of men in Virginia who allegedly used paintball games as a method of training for terrorist attacks. The grand jury completed its deliberations in early 2004 and declined to indict Abu Ali.

Since then relatives and supporters have lobbied Washington for Abu Ali's release, and been told that American officials were powerless because he was in Saudi custody. Abu Ali's father, who works as a systems analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, claimed that unnamed Saudi officials told him his son had not broken any Saudi laws, and that his detention was the result of an "American case."

A federal judge in Washington ruled in December that Abu Ali's supporters could pursue his release through the American courts. The ruling, noting evidence that Abu Ali had been tortured while in prison, suggested that he had been kept in Saudi Arabia to "avoid constitutional scrutiny by American courts."

In records from that case, Abu Ali is alleged to have confessed to joining an al-Qaida cell, where he was given instructions to conduct terrorist attacks or return to the United States to form a separate cell. Supporters have argued his statements were made under duress.

The court records, citing second-hand accounts or claims from unnamed witnesses, allude to an incident in which Abu Ali experienced so much pain in his hands that he could not pick up a pen to sign documents.

Abu Ali's attorney, Ashraf Nubani, offered yesterday to display evidence of torture.

U.S. Magistrate Liam O'Grady said Abu Ali might be allowed to enter such evidence at his detention hearing.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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