- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

A Qatar native held on charges of lying to the FBI in an investigation into the September 11 attacks was designated yesterday as an “enemy combatant” and could be tried before a military tribunal for helping al Qaeda operatives relocate in the United States.

Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, 37, in Justice Department custody since late 2001, was given the new designation by President Bush and handed over to the Defense Department. Pentagon officials told reporters that he is being held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Federal authorities believe that he organized sleeper cells of terror network al Qaeda in this country and helped terrorists gain entry here.

Al-Marri is the third person, and the first non-U.S. citizen, since the September 11 attacks to be designated as an enemy combatant. The designation gives the government the power to try, sentence and even execute terrorism suspects in secret, under rules that limit their constitutional rights, access to an attorney and opportunities for appeal.

The other designated enemy combatants are Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Louisiana native captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, and Jose Padilla, a Chicago man also known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, accused in a plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States.

Neither has been charged with a crime or scheduled for trial.

Initially held as a material witness in the September 11 probe, Al-Marri was named in May in a grand jury indictment handed up in Peoria, Ill., accusing him of making false statements to the FBI and of credit-card fraud. His designation as an enemy combatant came after prosecutors dropped the pending criminal charges.

He had been identified in the days shortly after September 11 as someone with ties to an al Qaeda operative involved in planning the attacks, authorities said.

A search of his apartment netted an almanac with major U.S. dams, reservoirs, waterways and railroads marked. Agents seized an Arabic prayer discussing the defeat of “villainous Christians and Jews,” and victory for Muslims in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya and in the Palestinian struggle, authorities said.

Investigators also found a sheet with 36 credit-card numbers in a side pocket of Al-Marri’s laptop carrying case, and more than 1,000 fraudulent credit-card numbers on the hard drive of his laptop computer, they said.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said the decision to seek the new designation gives the government the ability to deter further terrorist attacks. She told reporters that the Justice Department was confident it would have prevailed during trial on the criminal charges.

“Setting the criminal charges aside is in the best interests of our national security,” she said, adding that Al-Marri had been identified by an al Qaeda detainee, who was “in a position to know,” as being involved in a scheme to conduct a second wave of terrorist attacks on the United States. She did not elaborate.

Al-Marri’s attorney, Mark Berman of Newark, N.J., told reporters that the government decided to switch his client’s status because he refused to cooperate and would not plead guilty as others have agreed to do.

“I’m not surprised, but it makes you wonder how far the government is prepared to go in denying constitutional rights,” Mr. Berman said.

In other action in the war on terrorism:

• Authorities in Malawi working with the CIA arrested five men yesterday suspected of helping funnel money to al Qaeda officials in that country.

• Officials in Kenya said they planned to charge four persons with murder in a November hotel suicide bombing blamed on al Qaeda that killed three Israelis and 11 Kenyans in Mombasa.

• Iran and the United States announced legal moves against al Qaeda suspects in that country. The Iranian government promised to hand over several members of the terrorist organization to their native countries.

Al-Marri attended Bradley University to study computer science, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1991. After a few years abroad, authorities said, he returned to the United States on a student visa the day before the September 11 attacks.

In February, authorities said, the Saudi Arabian government ignored a State Department request and issued passports to Al-Marri’s wife and five children. They have since left the United States.

Authorities said Al-Marri reportedly attended the same al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan as other would-be terrorists and met with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. They believe Al-Marri was trained in the use of poisons but had not been sent to the United States to mount an attack. He is suspected of offering himself as a martyr for al Qaeda attacks against U.S. targets, authorities said.

Al-Marri was accused in the indictment of lying to the FBI during an Oct. 2, 2001, interview when he told agents that he arrived in the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, and that it was his first visit since 1991. The indictment said he had been in the country during 2000.

During a Dec. 11, 2001, interview, the indictment said, Al-Marri denied making a telephone call to the United Arab Emirates. The government said the call went to a number belonging to Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, an unindicted co-conspirator in the pending case of terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. Prosecutors said Hawsawi provided financial backing to the September 11 hijackers.

Al-Marri was arrested the day after the second interview and since held as a material witness. Authorities said he obtained a bank account under a phony name, rented a motel room under a false name to create a mailing address and formed a fake company with the motel as its address. He also used a fake Social Security number to open three bank accounts, they said.

The designation of a terror suspect as an enemy combatant was first suggested by former Attorney General William Barr under the first President Bush as a way to bring to trial the terrorists responsible for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

It was not used at the time, but, according to administration sources, Mr. Barr again brought the idea forward after the September 11 attacks.

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