An American student was charged yesterday in an al Qaeda plot to kill President Bush, with prosecutors alleging that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali and his confederates planned to use multiple snipers to shoot Bush or to blow him up in a suicide bombing.
The expanded indictment of Abu Ali, returned by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, also claimed for the first time that he proposed a plan to bring members of an al Qaeda cell into the United States through Mexico. They would then link up with Abu Ali to conduct terrorist operations in this country, the indictment said.
Abu Ali, 24, of Falls Church was first charged in February with terrorism counts that included trying to establish an al Qaeda cell in the United States. That indictment referred to the plot to kill Bush, but Abu Ali was not charged with conspiring to assassinate the president until yesterday. The case is among the highest-profile terrorism prosecutions in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The new nine-count indictment also adds charges of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy and destroy aircraft, part of the Justice Department's allegations that Abu Ali was plotting with al Qaeda to conduct a Sept. 11-style attack in the United States that would include hijacking planes.
If convicted on the assassination count alone, Abu Ali faces up to life in prison. Earlier, his maximum penalty on all counts had been 80 years in prison.
An attorney for Abu Ali, who has pleaded not guilty, did not return telephone calls late yesterday, and a White House spokesman referred calls to the Justice Department. Prosecutors would not comment beyond the indictment.
Abu Ali was arrested by security officials in June 2003 while studying at a university in Saudi Arabia. His family mounted a highly public campaign in the United States for his release. He was held until he was flown back to the United States in February to face charges.
Defense attorneys and Abu Ali's family have contended that any statements he made in Saudi custody were obtained through torture. Two doctors who examined Abu Ali found evidence that he was tortured in Saudi Arabia, including scars on his back consistent with having been whipped, defense lawyers have said in court papers.
Prosecutors have denied that Abu Ali was tortured. But if a federal judge concludes that he was, much of the evidence against him could be thrown out because it was obtained under duress. The torture allegations are expected to play a key role in a hearing scheduled to start Sept. 19.
Law enforcement sources have said the plot against Bush, allegedly hatched while Abu Ali was studying in Saudi Arabia and after he joined an al Qaeda cell there, never advanced beyond the talking stage. The new indictment says two options were considered: multiple snipers shooting the president or a suicide operation.
The earlier indictment said nothing about snipers, only that Abu Ali would get close enough to Bush to "shoot him on the street" or would detonate a car bomb.
Several other allegations emerged yesterday about Abu Ali's alleged relationship with Osama bin Laden's organization. The indictment says he performed guard duty in 2003 for an al Qaeda cell at one of its locations in the Medina area of Saudi Arabia. It also says that in response to a request from an al Qaeda co-conspirator, Abu Ali translated from English into Arabic the audio portions of a video concerning operations by U.S. military aircraft in Afghanistan.
Abu Ali's case has generated strong interest among Muslims in Northern Virginia. The government says he confessed to the assassination plot while being detained in Saudi Arabia and admitted discussing with al Qaeda his plans to conduct attacks in the United States that included crashing hijacked planes into buildings.
Abu Ali will be arraigned on the charges in the new indictment on Wednesday.