Trail of an 'Enemy Combatant': From Desert to U.S. Heartland

Ali al-Marri studied in the United States for a decade, including at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., where he graduated with a business degree in 1991. His U.S. diploma was one thing that made him
Ali al-Marri studied in the United States for a decade, including at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., where he graduated with a business degree in 1991. His U.S. diploma was one thing that made him "an ideal sleeper agent" in al-Qaeda's eyes, according to Pentagon officials. He enrolled at Bradley again on Sept. 11, 2001, saying he wanted earn to his master's degree in computer science. He was arrested in a terrorism investigation a few months later. (Wikimedia Commons)

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By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

PEORIA, Ill. -- The 37-year-old computer science student was racing against a deadline. Just one day after picking up his visa from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar, he boarded a plane with his wife and five small children. The family flew to Chicago, caught a night's sleep at an airport hotel, then squeezed into a taxi for a 200-mile ride through farm country to Peoria.

That morning in New York, the twin towers were comin g down.

Within weeks, a string of tips would lead FBI agents to the doorstep of the student, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. They eventually came to believe that he was al-Qaeda's senior operative in the United States, a sleeper agent who made an unexplained one-day trip to New York City in the summer of 2000 and who was planning a second wave of attacks.

Yet after more than five years of imprisonment, Marri remains a curiously unknown figure. The investigation of his activities has been shrouded in secrecy. The Sept. 11 commission deliberately left his name out of its 567-page report. President Bush named him an enemy combatant in 2003 -- the only foreigner arrested on U.S. soil to be so designated -- but public attention has focused largely on his rights as a wartime captive.

In a commencement speech in May at the Coast Guard Academy, Bush mentioned Marri for the first time, hinting at why investigators have been so intent on learning what he might know about other sleeper agents. The president said the intelligence community believes that among Marri's potential targets were "water reservoirs, the New York Stock Exchange and United States military academies such as this one."

Marri maintained his innocence during interrogation sessions early in his confinement, his lawyers said. The Pentagon, which last year called Marri a "continuing grave danger to the national security," stopped questioning him after the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that alleged enemy combatants held in the United States have a right to counsel. He remains at a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., waiting for the outcome of the battle over his status.

Beneath the legal maneuvers are mysteries that Marri has never addressed:

What was behind his travels between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and the United States? What was the purpose of his computer research on hacking, and on how to buy and mix large quantities of chemicals into deadly hydrogen cyanide gas? Why did he possess more than 1,000 stolen credit card numbers? Does he have a connection to Dhiren Barot, the now-jailed British al-Qaeda leader who plotted to blow up buildings in the United States and England, and who may have inspired last month's attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow?

And was he rushing to the American heartland on Sept. 10, 2001, on orders from Osama bin Laden, or to beat the cutoff date for college enrollment?

Child of the Desert

Interviews with dozens of intelligence and law enforcement officials, diplomats, lawyers, college officials, and others here and abroad, as well as court documents, shed light on Marri's path from ponytailed university student to terrorism suspect. Some sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because aspects of the case remain classified; several said they were uneasy being quoted by name about a matter involving al-Qaeda.

By origin, Marri's family is Saudi, and it still maintains a camel farm in the Saudi Arabian desert, a tie to its Bedouin roots. In the 1970s, hundreds of members of the larger tribe took advantage of an invitation from Qatar's emir to emigrate to his country, where there were more jobs than workers. Marri's father became a border agent and was granted citizenship. He moved his family to Doha, the capital, where as citizens his children were eligible for free education in the West.

Ali al-Marri, who spent part of his childhood in the Saudi desert region, was 17 when he and his older brother Nagy set off for their American schooling in 1982. Marri's trip to Illinois with his wife and children in 2001 was a return to familiar territory: The brothers had spent about a decade studying at Peoria's Bradley University and on various campuses in rural Illinois.


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