- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

A Falls Church man and Saudi national has pleaded guilty to fraud as part of a test-taking scandal, but government suspicions that the man may have links to terrorism remain unresolved.

Saleh Ali Almari, 24, struck a plea bargain July 30 in which he admitted guilt to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. As part of the deal, he agreed to be deported after he serves his term.

Nothing in the plea bargain, though, addresses government concerns that items found in Almari's apartment are "possibly related to planned acts of terrorism," as outlined in the government's original affidavit against Almari.

Almari was never charged with any crimes connected to terrorism, but a December search of his apartment found flight manuals, a sketch of a plane striking the World Trade Center, a book about biological and chemical weapons and their use in the Persian Gulf, a photograph of Almari and others at the World Trade Center and the addresses of 12 U.S. oil refineries.

Prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom said yesterday that the government still has not received a satisfactory explanation about those items.

Almari's attorney, Robert Jenkins, said his client has nothing to do with terrorism. He noted that Almari was out of the country from mid-September until January, and that others had access to the apartment in that time.

Almari has admitted that some of the items were his, but has denied possession of the most suspicious items.

"Outside of September 11, these are items that investigators wouldn't be concerned with," Mr. Jenkins said. "In light of September 11, I can see why someone would raise an eyebrow."

Mr. Jenkins said his client did have an interest in flying at one point, but never took flying lessons. He also admitted that the photographs of him at the World Trade Center were his.

"This was normal stuff. There were also photos of him at Disney World," Mr. Jenkins said.

Almari left the United States about two weeks after September 11 to be with family in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Jenkins said.

When Almari returned to the United States in January, he was arrested upon arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and charged with stealing eight videotapes from a Boston library that were checked out but never returned. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor larceny charge and was sentenced to probation in May.

He was then held as a material witness until he was arrested on the fraud charge in June.

In the plea agreement, Almari admitted that he referred foreign students to two other men, Mahmoud Firas and Begad Abdel-Megeed, who were paid to take English-proficiency exams on the students' behalf. Foreign students need a good score on that exam to be placed at American universities.

Almari helped at least three students receive the bogus test scores, getting paid between $1,200 and $2,000 each time. He also was the recipient of a bogus test score, according to court records.

Almari's case is one of nearly a dozen at the federal courthouse in Alexandria in which the government has raised suspicions of terrorist activity while prosecuting an unrelated crime. In some cases, the government has acknowledged that the person is no longer suspected of terrorist connections; in many others, the government has remained silent or said that suspicions remain. None has been charged with terrorist activity.

Almari will be sentenced Oct. 11. By that time, Mr. Jenkins said, he will have spent 10 months in jail for a crime that carries sentencing guidelines of zero to six months.

"Does it comport with our whole system of justice and fairness? I don't think so," Mr. Jenkins said. "The government has done everything they could to detain him as long as possible to further their investigation."

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