A Qatari graduate student, first detained more than a year ago as a material witness in the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was charged yesterday with lying about calling one of the plot's conspirators.
Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was pursuing a master's degree in computer information at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., has been in federal custody since December 2001 and is scheduled to stand trial next month on separate credit card fraud charges.
Although federal investigators have previously suggested in court documents and testimony that al-Marri may have ties to terrorism, the criminal complaint filed yesterday in the Southern District of New York marks the first official allegation of such connections. The complaint also suggests that al-Marri admired al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and had sought information about dangerous chemicals and U.S. infrastructure targets.
According to the complaint, al-Marri placed several phone calls between September and November 2001 to a number in the United Arab Emirates that was used by Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against alleged al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui. The same telephone number was called by Mohamed Atta, the hijacking ringleader, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who is believed to have helped carry out the plot and is now in U.S. custody overseas, officials said.
The complaint charges al-Marri with using a false name and a stolen Social Security number to apply for bank accounts in Macomb, Ill., for a fictitious business. He is charged with lying to the FBI about when he entered the United States, as well.
The six new charges against al-Marri carry penalties ranging from five to 30 years in prison, with fines of up to $1 million on each count.
In laying out its case against al-Marri, the government pointed to suspicious files and documents found during a voluntary search of his laptop computer and other belongings a year ago.
On his computer, FBI agents say they found lectures by bin Laden and an Arabic prayer or oath asking for bin Laden's protection, along with pictures of the Sept. 11 attacks and lists of Web sites with titles such as "Jihad arena" and "Taliban." The computer included files about hazardous chemicals "immediately dangerous to life or health," and Web sites relating to weaponry and satellite equipment, the complaint says.
FBI agents also found an almanac that was bookmarked for information about major U.S. dams, reservoirs, waterways and railroads, the complaint said. The FBI said it discovered more than 1,000 credit card numbers, most of them stolen, on al-Marri's laptop and on a written document found in his Peoria apartment.
During an interview with FBI agents shortly before his arrest in December 2001, Al-Marri denied ever having called the UAE telephone number and said he did not know al-Hawsawi, officials said.
A federal grand jury in Manhattan indicted al-Marri earlier this year for allegedly having 15 or more credit card numbers with the intent to defraud. He is scheduled to face trial on those charges Jan. 13.
Richard M. Jasper Jr., a New York lawyer representing al-Marri, did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.