The State Department has asked Saudi Arabia to either indict a U.S. citizen it is holding on suspicion of terrorist activities or allow the Justice Department to return him to the United States.
The move represents a victory for the parents and supporters of Ahmed Abu Ali, 23, of Falls Church, who has been held without charges in Saudi Arabia since June 2003.
The request was made in one demarche on Friday and another on Sunday, said a Bush administration official who asked not to be named because the case is ongoing. A demarche is a formal request from one government to another.
The demarches came at a crucial stage in a lawsuit Abu Ali's family filed in federal court in Washington seeking his return.
The family has said that the government asked Saudi Arabia to detain him. On Monday, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates scheduled a Feb. 11 hearing to determine the process for deciding what information the U.S. government will have to disclose about its possible role in the detention.
During the hearing, Bates hinted that the government might have a development in the case soon.
The Justice Department and the State Department declined to comment on the matter yesterday. But the Bush administration official said, "We are working with the Justice Department and the government of Saudi Arabia to resolve this case and to bring it to some kind of closure."
Two U.S. officials from different national security agencies said the government did not really want Abu Ali returned. One said the government had hoped the Saudis would find a way to hold him, but was now seeking "to make the civil suit go away" because it risked forcing the government to disclose sensitive or embarrassing information about his case.
"Our son has suffered enough," Abu Ali's parents, Omar and Faten Abu Ali, said. "It's time for our government to admit its mistake and bring him home as a free man."
Abu Ali was studying at the University of Medina when Saudi authorities arrested him and 18 or 19 other men suspected of having connections to people involved in the bombing on May 12, 2003, of three Western residential compounds in Riyadh. The bombing killed 23 people.
The men were believed to be a jihadist cell in training, said one official familiar with the matter. Ali Abd Rahman Faqasi Ghamdi, the alleged leader of the cell, turned himself in to Saudi authorities soon after the arrests were made.
An FBI agent testified in a federal court in Alexandria that Abu Ali was part of a "jihad network." A grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia investigated Abu Ali last year in connection with an alleged Northern Virginia jihadist group but did not charge him.
Another source familiar with the Abu Ali matter said he had recently learned that prosecutors were subpoenaing people who knew him to testify before a grand jury, and that he expected prosecutors to seek an indictment against him.
Mahdi Bray, head of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, which has advocated for Abu Ali's release, said he thinks the U.S. request represents "the endgame of the Abu Ali situation. Either the government of Saudi Arabia is going to have to charge him, or they're going to have to bring him back home."
John Zwerling, an attorney representing a man who was arrested at the same time as Abu Ali but sent back to the United States for trial: "If they're bringing him back in order to moot out the [lawsuit] and are not planning on charging him with a crime . . . I think it's a terrific thing for the government to do. Better now than never.
"But if they have ulterior motives below the surface, such as [charging] him with a crime that they could have charged him with [18 months ago], then shame on them. They should have brought him back earlier."
Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, did not return several messages left at his Riyadh residence seeking comment.
Staff writer Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.