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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)

That student was Jaloud, the imam. His wife and Marri's had met at a Peoria mosque and had become friendly, Jaloud told The Post. He said he did not recognize Marri as "Almuslam," whose computer he had stored in his mosque's basement the previous summer.

Though remote, the Islamic Center of Macomb had come to the attention of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Several Muslim students raised concerns about financial irregularities there, according to local law enforcement and college officials and a former student.

The Islamic Assembly of North America, an organization that the government accused of creating Web sites to promote violent jihad, contributed $10,000 to the mosque, according to documents filed in federal court in a 2003 terrorism case. Several members of the Macomb mosque's board had dealings with the group, those records show.

The Dulles Clue

Before Marri could relocate to Macomb, he came to the FBI's attention again.

In late November 2001, the bureau's Springfield office was alerted by headquarters that an active phone number in their region was linked to the Sept. 11 plotters.

In a hijacker's car left at Dulles International Airport, authorities had found an express-mail receipt; it led them to a phone number that belonged to Hawsawi. The FBI learned that some calls to that number were made from cellphones and pay phones in the wee hours of the night from central Illinois, by someone using prepaid phone cards and PINs.

Investigators discovered that on Nov. 4, someone using a Qwest card and PIN called the Hawsawi number from a Chicago pay phone. On Nov. 7, someone used the same calling card from Marri's home phone, according to a criminal complaint later filed against him. The FBI then confirmed through cellphone records that Marri had been in Chicago at the time of the pay-phone call.

Marri had been calling other numbers, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to the complaint. Intelligence and law enforcement sources say he was calling senior al-Qaeda operatives.

The government's interest in Marri was soon heightened further. In mid-November 2001, al-Qaeda's senior military commander, Muhammad Atef, was killed in a U.S. rocket attack on an Afghan safe house. The CIA discovered a wealth of information among his possessions and on his computer.

"When he was killed, we found out there was a huge al-Qaeda interest in chemical and biological weapons," said an intelligence source knowledgeable about the investigations of both Atef and Marri. That prompted "a very energetic effort to identify people doing chem-bio." Materials recovered from Atef's safe house, the source said, revealed that Marri might be one of them. He and Atef had "shared contacts," the source said.

On Dec. 11, FBI agents Zambeck and Brown returned to Marri's apartment with more questions. He allowed them to look at his laptop computer and documents in his possession, including a scrap of paper in his wallet. When they asked whether he had called the number associated with Hawsawi, he denied doing so.

The next day, Marri was arrested as a "material witness" in a terrorism investigation and sent to New York, where he was held in a high-security unit of the federal jail.

Over the next few weeks, the FBI said, agents discovered extensive research on Marri's computer about purchasing large quantities of chemicals used to manufacture hydrogen cyanide, a deadly compound used in a failed 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. The same group had killed 12 people and sickened thousands with a nerve gas attack on the subway that year. Intelligence agencies were learning that the cult's activities were of great interest to al-Qaeda.

In an almanac in Marri's apartment, agents found that information about railroads, U.S. dams and reservoirs had been bookmarked.

"The feeling was he was engaged in operational research, identifying targets and materials," the intelligence source said. "We think al-Marri was here to carry out attacks, as part of a second or third wave. We rolled al-Marri up quickly because we did not want to take any chances at that time. We were not letting things play out because we were not sure we could control it."

Marri's files contained more than 1,000 credit card numbers, most already used in frauds, and long lists of Web sites about computer hacking and obtaining false identifications, investigators alleged in charges filed against him. There were also sites on weapons and satellite equipment, audio files of bin Laden lectures, and this oath in Arabic:

"Neither the United States nor anyone living in it will dream of security/safety before we live it in Palestine and before the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed."

Deadly 'Invention'

Jotted on the scrap of paper from Marri's wallet were five e-mail addresses that he said were his, according to the FBI. Three contained a draft message, addressed but not sent, to an e-mail account that the government said is linked to Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

"I have tried to contact you at your uncle ottowa but I could not get in," the message said in part.

Agents discovered that Marri had created all five e-mail accounts on Sept. 22, 2001, from a computer at Western Illinois University.

Prosecutors in New York dropped the material-witness warrant and held Marri on relatively minor charges of credit card fraud. In December 2002, a year after he was arrested, he was charged with lying to the FBI about his travels and the calls to Hawsawi. He had told the agents he'd last been in the United States in 1991 -- omitting the 2000 visit to Illinois and New York.

Prosecutors said they would seek a sentence of up to 20 years because Marri's alleged crimes were intended to further terrorism. In response his attorneys withdrew approval for moving the cases to New York. That sent the matter back to Illinois, where the lawyers would have gotten a second chance to persuade a judge to suppress evidence from Marri's laptop and his statements to Zambeck and Brown.

But before that happened, a series of events took place that would culminate in Bush's ordering Marri into military custody. On March 1, 2003, Mohammed was captured in a safe house in Pakistan, along with a treasure-trove of material from his computer and telephones. He revealed several "second wave" plotters and facilitators who were dispatched before the 2001 attacks, according to the Sept. 11 commission. Marri was among them, counterterrorism sources said.

In a statement to federal court in South Carolina last year, Jeffrey N. Rapp, the Pentagon's senior counterintelligence officer, wrote that Mohammed viewed Marri as "an ideal sleeper agent" because he had a U.S. college degree and could travel with his family.

The government said Rapp's statement was based on multiple sources, including the FBI, the CIA and interrogations of captured al-Qaeda leaders. He wrote that Mohammed and bin Laden decided in the summer of 2001 that Marri should get to the United States before Sept. 11, "to establish cover," and that he would act as a "point of contact for al Qaeda operatives arriving in the United States."

"Al Marri currently possesses information of high intelligence value, including information about personnel and activities of al Qaeda," Rapp wrote.

An analyst knowledgeable about what Mohammed -- also known as KSM -- has said in interrogations said that Marri "was a big deal to KSM. KSM trusted his intellect. . . . He could flash his jihadi credentials, and he could operate as a graduate student. He could serve as a docking station for an Atta-like person."

The Pentagon also learned that Marri's younger brother Jarallah had been in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and was being held as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay. Mohammed had met with Jarallah al-Marri in late summer 2001 and told him of his brother's U.S. activities, according to Rapp.

Just before Mohammed's capture, Department of Homeland Security officials raised the national threat alert, saying al-Qaeda was plotting a chemical or biological attack, possibly on New York subways. George J. Tenet, then CIA director, cited the possible use of chlorine or cyanide gases. New York police put the city on something close to its own "code red."

Some of what was going on behind the scenes at the time was revealed in Tenet's recent memoir and in author Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine," published last year, though neither book mentions Marri.

Saudi authorities, working with the CIA, had arrested a group of suspected extremists and discovered on one of their computers an al-Qaeda blueprint for a simple device to mix hydrogen cyanide gas from easily obtained chemicals and then disperse it. They called it the "mobtakker" -- Arabic for "invention." Such a device would solve the problem that caused the Tokyo attack to fail.

"When people were looking at the mobtakker, clearly al-Marri's name came very much to the fore," an intelligence source said.

Nothing about the device appeared on Marri's computer, but there were records of his searches for "technical and ordering information on various cyanides," Rapp's declaration said. It called Marri's interest in sulfuric acid "noteworthy" because it is an ingredient "in a hydrogen cyanide binary device." The mobtakker would be such a device.

Then a CIA informant disclosed that al-Qaeda's chief in Saudi Arabia, Yusef al-Ayiri -- then known to the agency only as "Swift Sword" -- was planning a mobtakker attack on the New York subways. Ayiri had traveled to Pakistan in January 2003 to inform al-Qaeda's leadership that a subway attack would be carried out in 45 days.

"Chillingly," Tenet wrote in his book, "word came back from Ayman al-Zawahiri himself in early 2003 to cancel the operation and recall the operatives, who were already staged in New York, because 'we have something better in mind.' "

Counterterrorism officials were desperate to locate the cell members. "Since al-Marri was already in custody by then he couldn't have been an active participant, but who he was in contact with might have led to the people who were involved in the plot," the intelligence source said.

The CIA's hopes of learning more from Ayiri were dashed when, on May 31, 2003, he was killed in a gun battle with Saudi police.

Three weeks later, on June 23, Bush declared Marri an enemy combatant.

'Dreams of Home'

Marri was immediately whisked to the Navy brig in South Carolina. The only outsiders allowed to see him were military interrogators.

Jonathan Hafetz, one of Marri's lawyers, contends that isolation and harsh conditions imposed during the first years of his confinement as an enemy combatant were "tantamount to torture." Still, he said, Marri has not wavered: He denies telephoning Hawsawi or being part of al-Qaeda.

Pentagon efforts to question Marri ended in 2004.

"In interrogation sessions he has maintained his innocence. They didn't get him to falsely confess," Hafetz said. The Rapp declaration, he asserts, is based in part on "multiple hearsay" from Mohammed and others who have been subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.

Marri remains at the center of a key constitutional test of whether the president has the authority to indefinitely hold someone picked up on U.S. soil as a wartime captive. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in Marri's favor last month. The government has appealed, and the case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

If the court decides that the president overstepped his authority in declaring Marri an enemy combatant, the Justice Department may seek to build a terrorism case against him in criminal court. If the Bush administration prevails, Marri would be tried before a military commission, where information about him is likely to be kept narrowly circumscribed.

Andrew Savage, another member of Marri's legal team, said the conditions of his client's confinement have improved dramatically since 2005, when his lawyers sued over his treatment. Savage now visits him frequently, as does an imam and a representative of the International Red Cross. The lawyer said he would like to see a diplomatic resolution in which Marri is turned over to the government of Qatar. "He dreams of going home," Savage said.

Savage said Marri is very religious but not a political fanatic. "He is very strong politically about Americans being involved in Arab affairs," he said. "I have not seen any inkling of hatred."

During the more than five years of Marri's custody, his lawyers said, they have never spoken with him about the specifics of the government's claims. They have not offered an explanation for the phone records showing calls to al-Qaeda operatives, for the computer material on chemical weapons or for the evidence that he traveled to New York in the summer of 2000.

"We haven't drilled down on those allegations," Savage said. "There's no reason to. He's not really charged with anything. He said he is innocent, he's not a sleeper agent -- at that point we left it at that."

Staff writer Sari Horwitz, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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