Federal prosecutors unveiled broad terrorism charges yesterday against a Northern Virginia man who had been detained in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years, accusing him of plotting to assassinate President Bush and trying to establish an al Qaeda cell in the United States.
Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 23, conspired with confederates in Saudi Arabia to shoot Bush on the street or kill him with a car bomb, according to a six-count indictment unsealed yesterday. The indictment said Abu Ali sought to become "a planner of terrorist operations" and compared him to leading al Qaeda figures associated with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Abu Ali's family and supporters denied the charges and said he had been tortured while he was being held by authorities in Saudi Arabia. Abu Ali's attorney said he intends to plead not guilty.
Law enforcement sources said the plot against Bush, which the indictment says was hatched while Abu Ali was studying in Saudi Arabia, never advanced beyond the talking stage. One source involved in the case said the U.S. government had hoped Saudi Arabia would bring charges against Ali, in part because of the lack of evidence linking him to any al Qaeda activities.
The charges followed a highly public effort by Abu Ali's family to force the government to return him to the United States from a Saudi prison, where he had been held for the past 20 months. His parents sued the U.S. government, charging it had condoned the torture of their son.
The case has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the State Department making an unusual request several weeks ago that the Saudis charge Abu Ali or release him into U.S. custody.
Those emotions were on display yesterday as dozens of supporters crammed into the federal courthouse in Alexandria to glimpse Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Falls Church. His family yelled out greetings as he emerged in the custody of U.S. marshals. His father blinked back tears. Family members laughed aloud as prosecutors mentioned the alleged plot against Bush.
But family members wept as they left the courtroom, and supporters expressed outrage at the charges. Defense attorneys told the judge that Abu Ali had been tortured in Saudi Arabia and offered to show the judge proof right in the courtroom. Sources said that proof includes vertical scars along Abu Ali's back showing that he had been whipped.
"Everything the government has said is lies upon lies upon lies,'' said Abu Ali's father, Omar Abu Ali. He described his son as a peaceful student of Islam who was arrested in June 2003 while taking final exams at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
But prosecutors painted a vastly different portrait. They said that Abu Ali had plotted with America's greatest enemies and that the case had struck a major blow against terrorism. "After the devastating terrorist attack and murders of September 11th, the defendant turned his back on America and joined the cause of al Qaeda," said Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria.
The allegations of torture promise to play a role as the case progresses. "We all know that evidence obtained from torture is the most unreliable evidence you can get,'' said Edward B. MacMahon Jr., an attorney for Abu Ali. "I'm distressed that it's come to the point where our government is prepared to use evidence gained from torture in a criminal trial in the United States.''
The case is the first in which the U.S. government would have to rely, in part, on information gathered solely by a foreign government, in this case, Saudi Arabia.
Because U.S. authorities were not involved in Abu Ali's interrogation and, therefore, could not conduct questioning in a manner that would stand up in U.S. courts, the Alexandria court might have to decide whether any statements gained under Saudi questioning should be admissible. The case is being brought at a time when the role of torture in the U.S. war on terror is becoming increasingly scrutinized.
Legal experts said the defense will face a series of hurdles if it seeks to use torture allegations to get the case thrown out. It is not enough, experts said, to prove that Abu Ali was tortured by the Saudis.