Family, friends denounce charges against `pious man'

February 23, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FALLS CHURCH, Va. - By the U.S. government's account, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali used his time studying in Saudi Arabia to plot the assassination of President Bush. But to supporters here, the young man's studies at Saudi Arabia's University of Medina were nothing more than a spiritual break before a settled life in American suburbia.

Two divergent stories about Abu Ali emerged yesterday as the 23-year-old student from Northern Virginia sat in federal custody.

To U.S. officials, the young man is a shadowy would-be assassin who hatched a plan with an al-Qaida member in 2002 and 2003 to shoot the president or kill him with a car bomb. To friends and family, the U.S. citizen is a high school valedictorian who dreamed of marrying an American, perhaps working as an engineer and teaching the Koran.

In the family's Falls Church home at the top of a 10-story high rise, Faten Abu Ali, the suspect's mother, was still processing the news that her son was suspected of attempting to kill the president and facing a string of charges. She said she heard the charges for the first time in court yesterday.

"I laughed on every count," she said. "I know the government is lying."

But U.S. officials are taking this case seriously.

"After the devastating terrorist attack and murders of Sept. 11, the defendant turned his back on America and joined the cause of al Qaida," U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said in a statement. "He now stands charged with some of the most serious offenses our nation can bring against supporters of terrorism."

After the court appearance yesterday, Abu Ali's relatives said they were eager to see him for the first time since he was detained in Saudi Arabia without charges in June 2003. The family has been fighting for his return; a lawsuit on his behalf contends the U.S. government encouraged Saudi officials to hold him there for interrogation.

"We consider this a victory - in Saudi Arabia, they could have locked him up forever," his mother said, , eager to see her son receive a U.S. trial. "We believe in the U.S. justice system. We believe this country is based on good morals."

Abu Ali's family contends he went to Medina, considered the birthplace of Islam, to explore his spiritual homeland.

"He went there the way a Christian goes to the Vatican or a Jew to Israel," she said. "He wanted to learn about his religion by experiencing it."

In court yesterday, Abu Ali alleged he was tortured. His family recalls him turning to them, markedly thinner, but smiling.

"I started crying today when he waved at us," said Tasneem Abu Ali, one of his sisters. "I thought, `Oh my God, that's Ahmed. He's still trying to be strong for us.'"

Ahmed Abu Ali was raised in a conservative Muslim community 20 minutes from downtown D.C. Here, many families attend the local mosque several times a day.

While Abu Ali told his mother he wanted to marry an American rather than find a woman in an Arab country, friends say he would have conformed to strict courtship traditions.

At the Dar Al Hijrah mosque, which sits just a few blocks from the family's apartment, members recall Abu Ali appearing as often as twice a day for prayers.

Inside the low sandstone building, they say, he helped children with their Koran studies and coached sports.

He loved competing in the mosque's trivia contests on Islamic law and religious texts, friends recalled, and his seriousness about the subject deepened as he studied in Saudi Arabia.

A couple of Abu Ali's friends from Virginia had joined him in Saudi Arabia, said family friend Shaker Elsayed, but he said that only Abu Ali appeared to thrive in Medina. Elsayed recalled visiting him in October 2002 and praying with him at the Mosque of the Prophet, considered a revered place of worship for Muslims around the world.

"His friends were not comfortable with the closeness and conservatism of the society, but Ahmed was comfortable," said Elsayed, 53, an Islamic schools consultant who has known Abu Ali since he was born. He was "focusing on his study."

Abu Ali, was born in Houston and moved to Falls Church as a boy. In 1999, he graduated at the top of the Islamic Saudi Academy, a high school in Alexandria, Va., whose foyer holds pictures of the Saudi royal family.

The private academy caters to some wealthy children - a few chauffeurs waited by their cars while their young charges played catch in the afternoon sun yesterday - but Abu Ali's parents, who emigrated from Jordan, appear to come from modest means.

His father, Omar Abu Ali, reportedly works as a computer programmer for the Saudi Embassy. His mother is a pharmacist.

Abu Ali had received an engineering scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park, but friends say he was torn between meeting the expectations of his parents that he become an engineer and following his interest in his religious studies.

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