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Suspect Is Declared an Enemy Combatant

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Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration on Monday dropped criminal charges against a Qatari man who was in the United States on a student visa and instead declared him an “enemy combatant” who allegedly led an effort to settle Al Qaeda “sleeper” operatives in this country.

President Bush signed the order switching control of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, 37, from the Justice Department to the Pentagon -- the first time such a transfer has occurred.

The change in Al-Marri’s status denies him nearly all of the rights afforded criminal suspects in civilian court, including access to a lawyer and a show-cause hearing before a judge, senior administration officials said. As an enemy combatant, he could eventually be tried before a military tribunal.

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In a one-page letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush said he made the decision “based on evidence available ... from all sources.”

That evidence, Bush wrote, indicated that since Al-Marri entered the United States in early September 2001, he had “engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and warlike acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism.”

“Mr. Al-Marri represents a continuing present and grave danger to the national security of the United States, and the detention of Mr. Al-Marri is necessary to prevent him from aiding Al Qaeda in its efforts to attack the United States,” Bush wrote.

Along with Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, Al-Marri is the third person publicly designated by name as an enemy combatant since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and the only one who is not a U.S. citizen.

Hamdi, a Saudi born in Louisiana, was captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan, while Padilla, a native of New York, was held in connection with an alleged Al Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive “dirty” bomb in the United States.

Hundreds of unidentified men captured during the war in Afghanistan also are being detained and interrogated at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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The Pentagon confirmed Monday that the Department of Defense had transported Al-Marri from Illinois to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., the same place where Padilla is being held. Hamdi is in a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va.

Al-Marri, also known as Abdullakareem A. Almuslam, has been in federal custody since December 2001. A 1991 graduate of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., he is a native of Saudi Arabia who holds Qatari citizenship.

Al-Marri initially was interviewed by the FBI in October 2001 at his home in Peoria, and he was arrested two months later as a material witness in the investigation into the terrorist attacks. He was subsequently accused of lying to the FBI and committing credit card fraud.

Prosecutors said they have evidence that Al-Marri made a series of calls to a number in the United Arab Emirates associated with Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi, a top Al Qaeda financier linked to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Al-Marri has denied the allegation, prosecutors said.

Al-Marri’s laptop computer contained evidence of suspicious activity, prosecutors said -- including hundreds of stolen credit card numbers that authorities asserted were to be used to fund terrorist activity.

The FBI also found an Arabic oath or prayer asking God to “protect” and “guard” Osama bin Laden, audio files containing lectures by Bin Laden and his associates, photographs of the Sept. 11 attacks and lists of Web sites with titles such as “Jihad arena,” “Taliban” and “martyrs,” according to the complaint against Al-Marri.

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Senior Bush administration officials said that the decision to designate Al-Marri as an enemy combatant came in part because of recently obtained information indicating that he remained a threat to national security, with knowledge of ongoing terrorist plots and operatives on American soil.

An Al Qaeda detainee “in a position to know” identified Al-Marri “as an Al Qaeda sleeper operative who was tasked to help new Al Qaeda operatives get settled in the United States for follow-on attacks after 9/11,” said Alice Fisher, deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division.

Several U.S. officials identified the detainee as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s operations chief, who was arrested March 1 in Pakistan. The officials said Mohammed not only named Al-Marri, but also said that he had given Al-Marri the job of helping set up sleeper cells because he spoke English well and because his life as a student and a family man -- he and his wife had five children -- wouldn’t attract suspicion.

Fisher said other detainees confirmed that Al-Marri had been to the Al Faruq training camp in Afghanistan, where he met with Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members.

Fisher stressed that Al-Marri wasn’t handed over to the military because of lack of evidence in the criminal case.

“We are confident we would have prevailed on the criminal charges,” said Fisher, who oversees terrorism prosecutions. “However, setting the criminal charges aside is in the best interests of our national security.”

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Legal experts had mixed responses to the Bush administration’s action.

Some hailed it as an aggressive but necessary countermeasure in the ongoing war against Al Qaeda, which has itself changed tactics and continued to stay alive and deadly despite a massive crackdown both here and overseas.

Others said that by denying alleged terrorists arrested in the United States the right to trial within the civilian court system, the administration risked appearing as if it was trampling on the Constitution.

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, an Alexandria, Va.-based research group, said that his organization had not taken a position on the administration’s use of the enemy combatant designation, but that it is “watching them with increasing interest” to make sure the tactic is not abused.

Designation as an enemy combatant “is a law enforcement tool of potentially overwhelming power” that can be used beneficially or abused, said Fidell.

He said that “it gives them tremendous leverage” against terrorist suspects.

Al-Marri’s attorney, L. Lee Smith, said he was summoned to court early Monday and told that the criminal charges were being dropped on Bush’s order. Smith said he asked U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm to postpone dropping the criminal charges so he could appeal.

Mihm, who could not be reached for comment, “didn’t explain his position except to say he had little discretion in not allowing the government to dismiss its case,” said Smith.

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Al-Marri had pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, but Smith said he couldn’t say whether his client contests the terrorism allegations because he has been prohibited from discussing the case with him because of special administrative measures imposed by the court.

But, Smith added, “there is nothing in the indictment or the discovery that I’m aware of that directly links him to Al Qaeda or that he is an enemy combatant. If that evidence exists, it certainly wasn’t established in what was turned over to us.”

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