A federal judge denied bail yesterday for an American student charged in an alleged conspiracy to kill President Bush after an FBI agent testified that the man had admitted plotting with al Qaeda to conduct a Sept. 11-style terror attack in the United States.
Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 23, of Falls Church, told FBI agents that he and other members of an al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia planned to hijack airplanes overseas and crash them into targets on the East Coast, according to testimony. They also discussed plans to kill members of Congress, blow up ships in U.S. ports and aircraft at U.S. military bases, and free terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, FBI counterterrorism agent Barry Cole told a federal judge in Alexandria.
Leaving a court hearing for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali are, from left, family friend Shaker Elsayed, and Abu Ali's parents, Faten Abu Ali and Omar Abu Ali.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
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Abu Ali's attorney called the allegations "preposterous."
But Cole testified that while Abu Ali was detained in Saudi Arabia for 20 months, he told the FBI several times that he wanted to carry out the assassination plot personally by getting close enough to Bush to shoot him or blow him up. When al Qaeda asked him for a list of U.S. targets where "mass casualties" could be inflicted, such as stadiums and amusement parks, Abu Ali provided it, Cole said.
"The defendant was given a choice by al Qaeda," Cole told a courtroom packed with Abu Ali's supporters and family members. "He was told he could be part of an operation and martyr himself or go back to the United States, establish a cell, marry a Christian woman, assimilate back into society and they would provide him the necessary operatives for the mission."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Liam O'Grady ordered Abu Ali detained until his trial. He said the government had provided "way beyond clear and convincing evidence" that "this defendant . . . is a grave danger to the community and to this nation."
Just how dangerous Abu Ali might be has been at the center of the case ever since Saudi security officials arrested him in 2003 while he was studying at a university there. He initially was questioned in connection with bombings against Western targets there. But his family contended in a lawsuit that Abu Ali was just a student and said he was being tortured by Saudi officials.
Yesterday, the two views of Abu Ali again took center stage.
As convincing as Cole's testimony was to O'Grady, the judge said he was disturbed that a high-ranking FBI official apparently disagreed -- even after Cole had interviewed Abu Ali. O'Grady said he would consider defense motions to reconsider bail because of an e-mail sent by Michael A. Mason, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office. In the May 2004 e-mail to a family representative, filed in court by the defense, Mason wrote that his office, whose agents investigated the case, "has no further interest in Mr. Ali's detention."
Mason "is an individual with supervisory capacity, and I've never seen anything like that," O'Grady said.
O'Grady then grilled Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman about the e-mail. Laufman said Mason's views "do not reflect the views of other officials in the FBI and the Department of Justice."
Mason, who has tried to reach out to Muslims in Northern Virginia offended by the government's pursuit of Abu Ali and other terrorism suspects, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. About the same time he wrote the e-mail, he made similar comments to a gathering of Northern Virginia Muslims. Law enforcement officials have said there was division within the government about how to handle Abu Ali, with some officials believing the case against him to be weak.
In a six-count indictment unsealed last week, Abu Ali is charged with providing material support to al Qaeda. He was brought back to this country after his family sued the U.S. government.
Relatives declined to comment after yesterday's hearing. But the tensions between the family and the government were evident. When Laufman said he did not want Abu Ali released into the family's custody because his mother had been quoted as using "jihadist rhetoric," family members laughed. And relatives objected when a court security officer announced at the start of the hearing that they would be forbidden to communicate with Abu Ali when he entered the courtroom.
"Can we smile at him?" one family member asked.
Officials revealed at the hearing that the case against Abu Ali is highly dependent on Saudi sources. Much of it comes from a confession Abu Ali reputedly hand-wrote while imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Cole said that the confession was certified by two Saudi judges and that Abu Ali was videotaped reading it.
Prosecutors and the FBI said other evidence comes from the statements of Abu Ali's alleged co-conspirators -- one of whom was killed in a shootout with Saudi police -- and from a report prepared by Saudi law enforcement officials. Experts have said that whether evidence gained from foreign sources -- and obtained through possible torture -- can be admitted will be a key issue in the case. Prosecutors again denied yesterday that Abu Ali was tortured.
Defense attorney John K. Zwerling called the government's case "purely preposterous. Everything is based on statements made after he was detained by the Saudis and interrogated until he made a statement." He said Abu Ali is "a homesick American young man wanting to get back to this country."
Under questioning from prosecutors, Cole said Abu Ali asked for a lawyer when a four-person government team -- two FBI agents, an FBI analyst and a Secret Service agent -- tried to interview him in Saudi Arabia in 2003.
"I told him that because he was in Saudi custody, he was not entitled to an attorney. They would not allow it," Cole testified.
Cole said that Abu Ali eventually agreed to talk and that he and other agents then continued questioning him to gather intelligence -- and not to obtain evidence for a criminal case -- because "we felt that the information was so vital to national security.''