Va. student is convicted of plotting to kill Bush

U.S. says Arab-American defendant admitted al-Qaida links

he alleges torture by Saudis

November 23, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In what the Justice Department has described as a crucial terrorism trial, an Arab-American student from Virginia was convicted yesterday of plotting with operatives of al-Qaida to assassinate President Bush and hijack airplanes.

A federal jury in Alexandria, Va., found Ahmed Omar Abu Ali guilty on numerous charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. The jury rejected the defendant's accounts that his Saudi captors beat and tortured him into confessing.

Abu Ali, 24, a U.S. citizen who is the son of a Jordanian father and who grew up in Northern Virginia, faces the possibility of life in prison when he is sentenced by federal Judge Gerald Bruce Lee on Feb. 17.

The Justice Department has seen the case as an important test of its ability to use foreign intelligence sources for a criminal case in an American court.

The department described Abu Ali before the trial as "one of the most dangerous terrorist threats that America faces in the perilous world after Sept. 11, 2001: an al-Qaida operative born and raised in the United States, trained and committed to carry out deadly attacks on American soil."

Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said after the verdict that Abu Ali had posed "a grave threat to our national security." He said the defendant had scouted nuclear plants in the United States at the behest of his al-Qaida confederates, and that the hijacking plot he engaged in was "substantially similar to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

But no evidence was presented to show that any plot had reached an operational stage. And the defense said Abu Ali was just an American student who went to Saudi Arabia to pursue his religious studies.

"If he's the most dangerous guy they have, then we're very lucky," defense lawyer John K. Zwerling said early on, "because I don't believe he's very dangerous at all."

Another defense lawyer vowed to appeal. "Obviously, the jury has spoken, but the fight is not over," the lawyer, Khurrum Wahid, told the Associated Press. "We intend to use the justice system to prove our client's innocence."

Prosecutors maintained that Abu Ali went to Saudi Arabia in 2002 with the idea of becoming a terrorist because he saw Bush as "the leader of the infidels" and eventually met a high-ranking leader of al-Qaida. McNulty said terrorists trained the defendant in weapons, explosives and document forgery.

Abu Ali was arrested at a university in Medina in June 2003 as the Saudi authorities were investigating a wave of bombings.

What happened next is at the heart of the case.

Prosecutors said Abu Ali willingly confessed to joining al-Qaida and engaging in various terrorist plots, including one to personally kill the president. Defense lawyers suggested their client was falsely implicated by terrorists to protect cell members still at large, and that Saudi security forces extracted a confession after brutalizing him for 40 days.

Abu Ali testified in a pretrial hearing that his captors repeatedly whipped his back, kicked him in the stomach and yanked on his beard to obtain a videotaped confession in which he said he joined al-Qaida because he hated the Untied States for its support of Israel. (Abu Ali did not testify at the trial.)

Prosecutors called his account of torture fabrication. They quoted from telephone conversations Abu Ali had with his parents in Virginia while he was in Saudi custody. "I am very healthy," prosecutors quoted him as saying. The prosecutors also offered accounts from Saudi officers, who said that they had treated the prisoner well and that he had talked voluntarily.

Abu Ali was held in Saudi Arabia until February, when he was brought to the United States. He was indicted soon afterward.

Lee rejected a defense move to keep the confession out of the trial, although he allowed Abu Ali's lawyers to bring up the torture allegations. Two doctors who examined the defendant testified that they believed he had been tortured. But two other doctors, testifying for the prosecution, said they had reached opposite conclusions.

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